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HAVANA (Reuters) - Canadian tourists fleeing a harsh winter and buoyed by their strong dollar are flocking to Cuban beaches in record numbers and helping Cuba's tourist trade end a two-year slump.
Cuban hotel managers said a surge in Canadian "snowbirds" led to unprecedented tourism during the winter months of January through March.
And prospects for hotels during the summer improved last week when the government of Cuba's new President Raul Castro lifted a ban on Cubans staying at resort hotels formerly reserved for foreigners only.
Uncertainty over Cuba's future since Fidel Castro fell ill nearly two years ago and handed over power to his brother has not deterred tourism. On the contrary, having Cuba in the news has spurred interest in visiting the communist-run country, travel agents said.
The tourist trade, a major source of hard currency for Cuba, peaked in 2005 with the arrival of 2.3 million visitors, but dropped to 2.1 million last year, of which some 600,00 were Canadians.
But in January this year Cuba received more tourists than in any high season since it opened up to foreign investment and tourism in the mid-1990s: 247,386 visitors. Almost half were Canadians, a 30 percent increase over January last year.
"The high season has been very good, and it's thanks to the Canadians," said a European hotel manager who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to a journalist.
Cuba has acted on complaints of poor service, he said, and reduced the theft of luggage and immigration delays at Cuban airports, where about 50 flights land each week from Canada.
Cuba's ministry of tourism has actively sought new business offering tour operators better-priced deals compared to rival Mexican and Dominican destinations, the manager said.
Last year Cuba also cut the price it charges for aviation fuel, lowering charter company costs, he said.
American tourists are barred by U.S. law from visiting the Caribbean island nation.
The European market remains stagnant for Cuba, according to official figures for January. But Spanish tourism is picking up after a drop due to the purchase by American companies of two travel businesses, Iberoworld and Pullmantur, which eliminated them from operating in Cuba under U.S. sanctions.
"The statistics are looking very rosy through 2010," said a British travel agency representative with strong bookings through the summer. Britain is the second source of tourists for Cuba after Canada, with about 25 charter flights a week.
Cuba expanded its hotel capacity to 44,000 rooms in 2006, about half administered by foreign companies such as Spanish chain Sol Melia and France's Accor.
Cuba's resort hotels were off-limits for Cubans too until last week, when the restriction was lifted.
"This is a good way to raise occupancy in the low season, when hotels are only half full," the European manager said.
Editing by Philip Barbara