HAVANA — Cuba is getting more visitors, including a 20 percent uptick in the number of Americans, but tourism income hasn’t recovered from the sharp downturn caused by the global financial crisis, new government statistics say.
Overall tourist arrivals rose 18 percent to 2.53 million last year from about 2.15 million in 2007, Cuba’s National Office of Statistics said in a report posted on its website.
Despite the gains, visitors are making shorter trips and spending less. Tourism revenue totaled $2.22 billion in 2010, slightly below the $2.24 billion of 2007.
The report did not explain the data but Cuba’s tourism sector, a key source of income for the Caribbean island, has been hit hard by the world economic downturn.
According to the statistics office, the leading source of tourists last year was Canada, accounting for 945,000 visitors. Next came Britain at 174,000, Italy with 112,000 and Spain at 105,000.
The United States was the eighth biggest source of travelers despite Washington’s decades-old ban on American tourism to the island. About 63,000 Americans visited last year, compared with 52,000 in 2009.
The figures include both U.S. citizens who came on trips approved by the U.S. Treasury Department and those who sneaked in through third countries – but exclude the hundreds of thousands of Cubans living in the U.S. who come home to visit family annually.
President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on visits by Cuban Americans in 2009 and earlier this year his administration issued new rules for non-Cuban Americans that are expected to cause a significant increase in educational and cultural exchanges.
Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters Inc., which operates charter flights to Cuba, said the U.S. government issued some $1 million in fines to about 1,000 Americans who traveled to Cuba illegally during the early part of the last decade. But, he said, it stopped going after individuals in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration, according to Treasury Department records.
“That would in itself encourage people who might travel to Cuba without a license,” Guild said. “And under Obama, nobody would expect him to do anything worse than Bush was doing.”
The increase in American travelers roughly corresponds to a 30 percent rise in licensed excursions, for research, long-term academic study and religious trips that Guild’s company handled from 2009 to 2010. But he cautioned that the numbers involved are still relatively small.
Cuban officials have said privately they expect as many as 500,000 visitors to begin arriving from the United States annually.
Cuba’s statistics office also reported that the number of hotel rooms on the island increased 17 percent over the last four years, rising to 65,000 last year from 56,000 in 2007.
Occupancy rates dropped slightly from 60 percent to 57 percent over the period, it said.