DESPITE restrictions on traveling to Cuba, arrivals of U.S. tourists have increased by 54% from January to July, a figure influenced by the historic thawing of relations between the Caribbean nation and Washington, reports AP.
A report by economist and professor José Luis Perelló noted that 88,996 U.S. visitors arrived to Cuba (between January 1 and July 26, 2015) during the first seven months of the process of reestablishing relations after 50 years of severed ties; while 57,768 U.S. nationals arrived during the same period in 2014.
The figure does not include arrivals of Cuban Americans, which according to the expert included 164,368 people during the same January to July period.
The tourism industry is one of the pillars of the Cuban economy, earning the country over 2.5 million dollars in revenue and providing thousands of jobs in the hotel sector, while also benefiting bed and breakfast owners, taxi drivers and artisans.
In 2014, the island saw the arrival of more than 3 million tourists from around the world, in particular Canada, Germany, and the UK, an achievement widely recognized by Cuban authorities who highlighted the sustained growth of eco-tourism over the last 20 years, when the industry was in its infancy.
“According to my preliminary calculations and bearing in mind the current scenario, 2015 could end with more than 3.5 million international visitors, of them some 145,000 U.S. citizens, that’s to say, some 50,000 more than in 2014,” explained Perelló.
The presence of visitors of all nationalities - filling up hotels, bed and breakfasts and restaurants, which in these days are always packed - is obvious to anyone in Havana and other places around the country.
“The same growth rate is forecast for the remainder of the year, given the events scheduled for August 14, with the official opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana and Pope Francis’ visit in September,” added Perelló.
From January to July 26, overall tourist arrivals had already increased by 16%, noted the economist.
The U.S. government currently prohibits U.S. citizens from visiting the island, who in order to do so are required apply for special licenses; however, President Barack Obama has modified this policy following the joint statements made on December 17, 2014 with his Cuban counter part, Raúl Castro, announcing the initiation of a process toward the normalization of relations, a milestone in which has been the opening of the Cuban embassy in Washington on July 20.
Under the Obama administration, U.S. nationals can visit Cuba for educational, cultural, sporting or scientific purposes, within 12 established categories, while the President has also raised spending limits, with those returning now able to bring back up to 400 dollars worth of goods.
Although only the U.S. Congress has the power to lift the blockade imposed on the island since the 60s with the aim of overthrowing the government, Cuba has highlighted that the U.S. President has broad executive powers with which to substantially modify embargo restrictions in order to facilitate exchanges with the Caribbean nation.
According to Perelló, Cuba’s tourism potential is huge.
“It’s interesting to note that the Dominican Republic (registering 7.1% growth) received 2,858,763 international visitors in the first half of the year, of these 1,054,273 were U.S. citizens, and 338,242 Dominicans residing abroad, given the fact that it’s the number one tourist destination in the Caribbean and is competing with Cuba,” he commented.
In addition, many U.S. tourists who “vacation in Cancun, the Riviera Maya, the Dominican Republic or the Bahamas, could now visit Cuba” given that according to figures 12% of U.S. vacationers travel to more than one country.