CANCUN, Mexico -- Cuba, once the hottest playground in the Caribbean, could be on its way to reclaiming that title among foreign (non-U.S.) visitors, whose numbers jumped 15%, to 1.3 million, from January through August.

According to the Cuban Ministry of Tourism, in fact, the year-end figure could exceed 1.9 million.

Add to that what the ministry calls a pent-up demand from U.S. visitors after four decades of restrictions, and Cuba's tourism industry seems ready to bust wide open in terms of an enormous influx of visitors.

In fact, Miguel Figueras, senior advisor to the tourism ministry, estimated that U.S. figures could reach 3 million visitors within five years, once barriers to travel are removed.

U.S. travel professionals, who attended the first U.S.-Cuba Travel Conference here, sponsored by the Washington-based Association of Travel Related Industry Professionals (Atrip), concurred.

"Demand will be huge," said Bob Whitley, president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association. Whitley supports the right to travel to any destination "as long as it's a safe destination."

Conference participants included 100 U.S. tour operators, travel agents, association heads, cruise lines, legal firms, Cuban tourism officials and hotel companies doing business in Cuba.

The meeting was convened by Atrip in response to what it says is a growing demand in the U.S. to lift the prohibitions on travel to Cuba, considered by participants to be a violation of their constitutional rights of free movement.

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

Bradley Belt, Atrip's executive director, said his group "will help shape the policy debate in Washington. ... ASTA, the

USTOA and the National Tour Association already are members, but we need to broaden our travel industry representation to be most effective."

The Cancun conference followed passage of an appropriations measure in the House that would block the Treasury Department from enforcing a ban on most U.S. citizens spending money in Cuba.

The Senate approved the measure last week.

President Bush may veto the provision, although that would hold up the budgets for the Treasury and Transportation departments.

Ibrahim Ferradaz, Cuba's minister of tourism, pointed out that Cuba's tourism development "coincides with the most difficult times in the Cuban economy," a reference to the end of Russian support a decade ago.

"We need peace, recovery of our economies, the international movement of visitors and communications between cultures," Ferradaz said.

In its quest for more visitors, Cuba seeks the "development of new markets and relationships with new overseas tour operators," he said.

Travel agent Vivian Russell with Vivian V. Russell Travel in Santa Rosa, Calif., said she attended the conference "to learn more about Cuba. I want to send people if I can legally do so."

U.S. travel companies, cruise lines, tour operators and airlines already have contacted Cuban authorities regarding future business dealings.

"These contacts have allowed us to know how much information businessmen lack regarding Cuban development and society," Ferradaz said.

"They also help us plan joint programs we can develop for future use."

Ferradaz said there are 16 foreign hotel firms in Cuba, representing 40,000 hotel rooms; most of the firms are in joint ventures with Cuba. "Many of these hotels, especially the beach resorts, are built with the U.S. market in mind, in terms of facilities, styles and amenities," he said.

Another 1,700 rooms will open by year's end.

Cuba's growing tourist industry accounts for 40% of its foreign-trade income, Ferradaz said.

Most visitors are from Canada and Europe, but the island is "ready for a U.S. invasion of tourists."

"The past must be a point of reference but must not guide our future," he said.

Close to 180,000 U.S. residents and citizens visited Cuba last year on religious, humanitarian, educational and people-to-people programs.

Most of the educational programs operate with cultural exchange licenses from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, but the Bush administration wants to further restrict travel, and these licenses will not be renewed when they expire in December.

As a result, organizations are scrambling to redesign tours that qualify under more-restrictive licensing categories.

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

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