HAVANA -- Cuban president Fidel Castro met with a delegation of U.S. travel industry officials for more than two hours Oct. 19 at the conclusion of a one-day visit to explore tourism and business possibilities on the island.

The group was fully hosted by Havanatur, Cuba's leading travel service; the visitors did not spend a dime during the 14-hour visit. The travel ban prohibits U.S. citizens from spending dollars in Cuba.

Although Castro did not comment directly on the Bush administration's opposition to loosening travel restrictions for Americans who want to visit Cuba and the campaign to crack down on illegal travel to the island, Castro told the group that "we are very appreciative of what you are doing," referring to lobbying efforts in Washington to end U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba.

He also joked that if the restrictions are lifted, "so many Americans will come that we would have to find a place to move."

Castro said he has seen a growing demand for Cuba as tourist destination, citing a 14.8% increase in arrivals to 1.3 million visitors worldwide from January through August.

"Our interest is not to build high buildings or a lot of buildings like Cancun," he said. "What matters is that we preserve the beauty of the area and offer quality services and well-educated tourism workers."

He also pointed out the Caribbean region as a whole should be viewed as a tourist destination and not in competition with each other.

The day-long trip, which included stops at Revolution Square, several restored hotels in Old Havana, music and dance performances as well as meetings with Cuban officials, was part of the first U.S-Cuba travel conference held in Cancun Oct. 16 to 18.

The conference itself was sponsored by the Association of Travel Related Industry Professionals (ATRIP) based in Washington, recently formed to lobby for an end to the travel ban.

ATRIP president Michael Zuccato said "it's not a question of whether the ban will be lifted, only a question of when."

Conference participants included Bob Whitley, U.S. Tour Operators Association president and Matt Grayson, director of industry and government affairs for the National Tour Association.

Cuban officials included Ibrahim Ferradaz, minister of tourism; Miguel Figueras, senior advisor to the minister; Dagoberto Rodriguez, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington; and Antonio Diaz, president of Havanatur.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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