HAVANA (Reuters) - More than 1,000 travelers from the United States are arriving every day in Cuba on average, most of Cuban origin, making Havana's long-time foe its second source of visitors after Canada, travel industry and diplomatic sources said Monday.
U.S. charter companies flying to the Communist-ruled island say business has boomed since President Barack Obama's administration lifted restrictions last year on Cuban-Americans visiting their homeland, and also loosened curbs on academic, religious, cultural and other professional travel.
U.S. citizens are forbidden from traveling to Cuba without their government's permission under a wide-ranging U.S. trade embargo on the island imposed nearly five decades ago.
"There is a huge increase this year compared with 2009," said Armando Garcia, president of Marazul Charters, the oldest of a growing number of companies chartering flights to Cuba.
"Through October around 265,000 have traveled. November and December are the peak months, so we expect 330,000 will go to Cuba on direct flights from the United States this year," Garcia said, speaking in a telephone interview from Miami.
Cuban tourism industry sources said more and more U.S. citizens or Cuba-bound travelers from the United States were also arriving through third countries such as Mexico and the Bahamas to get around the U.S. travel ban, avoid licensing hassles, or simply because it is the less expensive route.
There are no regular scheduled commercial flights between Cuba and the United States which lie less than an hour's flight apart, separated by the Florida Straits.
"We estimate the total (visitors from the U.S. to Cuba) for the year will be more than 400,000," a U.S. State Department source said, asking his name not be used due to restrictions on talking with journalists.
Cuba reported 2.4 million tourists arrived in 2009, with Canada the largest provider at close to 915,000, followed by Great Britain at 172,000 and Spain at 129,000.
The Cuban National Statistics Office (www.one.cu) reported that Canadian arrivals through October of this year had increased, while there was little change from Great Britain and a significant drop in Spanish tourism.
Cuba reported 52,455 arrivals from the United States in 2009, but those of Cuban origin were included under a wide separate category of "other." Local tourism officials said 80,000 U.S. citizens came in 2008, including Cuban-Americans.
The official trade union weekly, Trabajadores, ran a front page article Monday on the expansion of the Havana airport terminal that receives U.S. flights, saying it would be completed by this Christmas and double capacity.
Marazul's Garcia estimated U.S. travel to Cuba would increase another 30 percent in 2011.
Legislation that would have lifted entirely U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba died in Congress this year. Such initiatives will have even less chance of passage when a new Congress convenes in January, following the Republican Party's success in the November mid-term elections.
Cuban-American Republican members of Congress are fierce and vocal opponents of opening up more U.S. travel to Cuba, saying there should be no relaxation without political change and human rights improvements on the island.
Advocates of more freedom to travel to Cuba hope the Obama administration will at least further loosen remaining restrictions, opening up more so-called 'people to people' contact visits that would favor sports, cultural, artistic, academic and religious exchanges.
Additional reporting by Esteban Israel; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Anthony Boadle