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HAVANA (Reuters) - The number of tourists coming to Cuba during the first two months of 2010 fell 3.4 percent from last year due to a decline in visitors from Canada, Cuba's top tourist provider, the government said on Thursday.
But a jump in arrivals by Cuban-Americans after the Obama administration lifted restrictions on their visits home likely helped offset the drop in Canadians.
A slump in tourism is bad news for President Raul Castro, who replaced his ailing brother Fidel Castro two years ago and is grappling with an economic crisis.
Tourism and related businesses brought more than $2 billion to the communist-run Caribbean nation in 2009, or about 20 percent of its foreign exchange income.
The National Statistics office reported on its website (www.one.cu) that 513,000 tourists arrived in January and February, down from 531,000 during the same period in 2009.
Canadian arrivals dropped to 243,800, from 270,400 in 2009.
Tourism industry experts outside Cuba said a pricing spat with a major Canadian tour operator contributed to the decline.
Other destinations, including the Dominican Republic and the Mexican resort of Cancun, also are drawing away tourists with lower-priced packages, they said.
Arrivals from the United States and some other countries under the category of "other" rose 11.6 percent to 99,500 for the two-month period, the statistics office said.
Most of that increase is probably Cuban-Americans because operators of U.S.-Cuba charter flights say their business is booming due to a flood of Cuban-Americans going to their homeland.
Last year, U.S. President Barack Obama did away with restrictions that had limited them to one visit every three years.
Most Americans cannot legally travel to Cuba due to the 48-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the country.
Slightly more than 2.4 million tourists visited Cuba last year, an increase of 3.5 percent over 2008. Despite the increase, tourism income declined 11.1 percent as visitors spent less in the midst of the global economic recession.
Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Tom Brown and Xavier Briand