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MIAMI - The number of U.S. visitors to Cuba continues to rise, even as the more than five-decade long embargo remains firmly in place, according to study released Monday.
Within the first three months of 2014 alone, there were more U.S. tourists to the island than in all of 2013 from England, Germany or France, according to a report by the U.S.-based Havana Consulting Group provided to The Associated Press. Canada remains the No. 1 country of origin for travellers to Cuba, but the number of U.S. travellers to the island has been steadily increasing over the last seven years.
Some 173,550 U.S. travellers visited Cuba in January through March. That compares to 149,515 from England, 115,984 from Germany and 96,640 from France in 2013.
"The data confirms, although the Cuban government does not recognize it publicly, that the United States, even with the effect of the embargo, is the second greatest source of tourists to Cuba after Canada," Emilio Morales, the consulting group's president wrote in the report.
"The push in the first trimester has been huge," he added.
Most of the U.S. travellers are Cuban-Americans visiting family but others have no ties to the island and travel to participate in academic and cultural programs.
The continuing increase in U.S. travel to the Communist-run island comes five years after President Barack Obama loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba. In 2009, Obama lifted a limit put in place by former President George W. Bush allowing Cuban-Americans to travel to island country no more than once every three years to visit relatives. And in 2011, he reinstated the so-called "people-to-people" trips, allowing U.S. citizens to apply for a travel license to participate in educational activities that promote contact with ordinary Cubans.
Havana is the top destination for most U.S. travellers, followed by Santa Clara and Camaguey. The vast majority fly out of Miami International Airport. More than 1,000 flights have departed from Miami to Cuba so far this year, with another 109 leaving from Tampa, the report said.
Travel in the first three months of 2014 was higher than in the last trimester of 2013, when many Cuban-Americans travel to spend the holidays with their family. The number of U.S. travellers has increased steadily each year, from about 245,000 in 2007 to nearly 600,000 last year.
"We expect that 2014 will be a record year," Morales wrote.
On average, Cuban-American travellers spend about $3,238 per person during their stay, accounting for a major source of revenue for the economically-strapped island.
The study was based off data from U.S. airports and Cuba's National Statistics Office.
While the data points toward another big year for U.S. travel to the long-forbidden island, there is one ongoing hurdle: Cuba suspended consular services in February after being unable to find a new bank in the U.S. for its diplomatic accounts. While many U.S. travellers had already submitted their visa requests for spring visits to Cuba, the situation remains unresolved and charter operators say it is having an impact.
"At this point, it's just getting worse," said Armando Garcia, the owner of Marazul, one of the largest Cuba charter operators. "For Cuban-Americans born in the United States we already have serious problems because we don't have visas for them. It's affecting travel, no doubt."
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