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Despite a US travel ban, tourism in Cuba thrives

AP Photo/Franklin Reyes
Tourists, galore!
By Zainab Mudallal
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Despite US travel restrictions, Cuba is a leading tourist destination in the Caribbean. Its favorable climate, cultural history, beautiful beaches, and colonial architecture makes tourism a main source of revenue for the island. (It’s rumored some people go for the music, rum, and cigars!)

Now, with news that the US and Cuba will start talks on normalizing full diplomatic relations after 50 years of hostility, the flow of Americans into Cuba will likely increase dramatically.

While the proposed easing of travel restrictions won’t necessarily allow for regular tourism, it is expected to make it easier for Americans to obtain a business license in the country, as well as to travel there.

Truth be told, Americans have already been traveling to Cuba in record numbers. More than 98,000 US citizens visited Cuba in 2012, up from 73,500 in 2011, and double the number five years ago. The rise in the numbers reflects a gradual loosening of travel restrictions. In addition to allowing Cuban-Americans to travel there, a 2011 program (paywall) authorized licenses for travel to a select number of travel agents.

In any case, the restrictions are easy to work around. Many Americans fly to Havana from another country, like Mexico or Canada.

The latest data from the World Bank shows that Cuba saw roughly 2.8 million international tourist arrivals in 2012, up from 2.5 million in 2010. That’s more arrivals than Iceland, Cyprus, Ecuador, New Zealand, Qatar, and Costa Rica, to name a few. In fact, Cuba was one of the top destinations in the Caribbean—ahead of Grenada, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Antigua and Barbuda, Haiti, Turks and Caicos Islands, St. Lucia, Cayman Islands, Barbados, Virgin Islands, Honduras, and Jamaica.

The Caribbean Tourism Organization shows that Cuba is the second-most visited island so far this year, with around 2,220,000 visitors (pdf) from January to September. It trails only the Dominican Republic, which saw around 4,200,000 from January to October. The same trend is visible in monthly data, where March 2014 was the latest month with data from all countries, and also one of the more popular months for tourism in the region.

And while data is not available for the number of tourist arrivals from the US, Cuba saw roughly 900,000 arrivals from Canada, 530,000 from Europe, and 800,000 from other regions in 2014.

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