Cuban American travel to Cuba on the rise

Wed May 6, 2009 10:35pm EDT
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By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - The number of Cuban Americans visiting Cuba is up 20 percent so far this year and will likely keep rising as Washington eases travel restrictions, the Cuban tour operator for U.S. traffic said on Wednesday.

Antonio Diaz Medina, vice president of Havanatur, said arrivals picked up after the U.S. Congress in March eased a Bush administration measure that restricted Cuban American visits to once every three years.

"The flights from the United States carried about 85,000 last year and so far this year arrivals have been about 40,000," Diaz said in an interview.

Diaz said an additional increase in visitors was expected during the summer after President Barack Obama signed an executive order last month lifting all restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting relatives.

Diaz spoke as Cuba's annual tourism convention unfolded at the colonial-era Morro Cabanas fortress overlooking Havana Bay, where talk among officials and tour operators centered on whether the gathering would be the last without a large American presence.

Legislation lifting all travel restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba was introduced in Congress just over a month ago, and with a slight thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations under way, is given a good chance of passing.

Cuba has been mostly off-limits to Americans since the U.S. imposed a trade embargo against the communist-led island three years after Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution.

Tour operators from more than 50 countries at the convention dubbed the prospect of open travel from the United States "the American Tsunami" and said it was just a matter of time.   Continued...