1999 U.S. arrivals to Cuba jump 47%

WASHINGTON -- The number of U.S. travelers to Cuba increased 47% to 82,000 visitors in 1999, compared with 55,900 in 1998, according to statistics from the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Eased entry restrictions for students, athletes, artists and other groups, plus additional charter flights from U.S. gateways last year for people visiting relatives in Cuba, helped account for the jump.

However, the overall number of U.S. visitors is probably much higher, because many take flights to Cuba through other countries such as Canada, Mexico, Jamaica and the Bahamas.

In fact, Cuban officials estimate that 160,000 Americans visited the country last year.

The trend continues this year, as indicated by recent figures released by the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Overall tourism numbers show that Cuba received more than 510,000 total visitors from January through March of this year, up 1.7% over the same period last year.

By comparison, the highest visitor count was recorded by the Bahamas: 525,980 visitors in the first four months of this year, down 2.9% over the same period last year.

Although Cuba has no cruise traffic to boost its arrival figures further, that, too, will soon change.

Blyth & Co. Travel in Toronto, in conjunction with Cuba Cruise Corp., plans to introduce cruises on the 400-passenger La Habana on Nov. 16.

The twice-weekly cruises will ply the route between Nassau and Havana on a year-round schedule.

Sam Blyth, president, said the first several departures are sold out and "98% of the passengers are American."

Blyth said although the cruises currently are not available for sale by U.S. agents, he is hopeful that this situation will change.

The cruise program offers U.S. citizens "a legal means for traveling to Cuba," he said.

The program takes advantage of a U.S. law that allows American citizens not formally licensed to travel to Cuba to visit the country, provided they observe certain requirements, including not spending any money while in the country.

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