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Cuba Draws 160K US Visitors in 1999

April 14, 2000

HAVANA (AP) _ More than 160,000 U.S. citizens visited Cuba last year despite tight restrictions on travel to the island, Cuban Tourism Minister Ibrahim Ferradaz said Thursday.

The U.S citizens were a small but notable portion of the more than 1.6 million tourists that Cuba says it drew in 1999. Ferradaz said a booming tourism industry produced $1.3 billion in revenue _ about 53 percent of Cuba’s total last year.

Speaking at a news conference, Ferradaz said about 60,000 to 70,000 people listed by Cuba as U.S. citizens visited the island last year in addition to ``more than 100,000″ Cuban-Americans _ considered Cuban citizens under the island’s laws.

He confirmed that the two categories did not overlap.

It was not clear how many of the U.S. visitors arrived legally and how many were violating terms of the U.S. travel embargo imposed in the early 1960s.

The U.S. government allows Cuban-Americans to make family visits to the island. Other Americans are allowed to visit the island with special permission from the government granted for purposes including academic study, cultural exchanges, some sorts of business and aid. U.S. laws forbid Americans to spend money in Cuba for strictly tourism purposes.

Ferradaz said Cuba has seen the number of foreign tourists grow from 342,000 in 1990 to 1.4 million in 1998 and 1.6 million last year.

The government had aimed at 2 million tourists this year, but saw only 2 to 3 percent growth in the first quarter, Ferradaz said, saying that was due to fears of a year 2000 computer bug among New Year travelers and the fact that the busy Easter season fell in the first quarter last year but not this one.

Canada is the leading source of tourists, providing 17 percent of Cuban visitors last year. Fifty-five percent of visitors came from European countries such as Spain, Italy, Britain and Germany.

Ferradaz said 86,000 Cubans work directly in tourism in fields such as hotels, restaurants or transportation. He estimated that another 300,000 jobs were created indirectly.

According to first-quarter figures released Thursday, Cuba’s economy could surpass its target of 4 to 4.5 percent growth for the year, Central Bank Governor Francisco Soberon said.

Cuba’s economy grew by a brisk 6.2 percent last year, one of the best spurts of growth since the 1993 depression caused by the loss of trading partners in the now-vanished Soviet bloc. Gross domestic product fell by about 35 percent between 1989 and 1993.

Soberon said the 1999-2000 sugar harvest is likely to be ``somewhat greater than 4 million (metric) tons,″ compared with 3.8 million tons last year. Officials in December had projected output at 4.1 to 4.4 million tons.

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