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More Americans are traveling to Cuba

American tourism to Cuba — tightly restricted for more than 50 years — is on the upswing, a new report shows. But Americans are a trickle compared with the torrent of Canadians.

Some 98,050 Americans visited Cuba in 2012, according to recently released Cuban government statistics (site in Spanish). That’s up from 73,566 in 2011. In fact, the Cuban charts show U.S. arrivals have been rising steadily since 2006,when 36,808 American arrivals were reported.

A recent Reuters report noted that the Cuban count excludes visits paid by an estimated 350,000 Cuban Americans, whom Cuban officials view as Cuban nationals.

A favorite American vacation destination in the 1950s, Cuba has been largely off-limits since Fidel Castro’s communist regime took over, prompting the U.S. to announce a trade embargo in 1962. President Clinton approved people-to-people trips and loosened restrictions in the 1990s. President George W. Bush cut back the trips in the 2000s. President Obama loosened some restrictions in 2011.

Still, in order to comply with restrictions enforced by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, most Americans can only travel to Cuba by way of “people-to-people” educational trips operated by companies specifically licensed by the Treasury Department. The underlying idea — which has been challenged by opponents of any trade with Cuba — is to promote not standard sightseeing but “meaningful interaction between travelers and individuals in Cuba.”

Meanwhile Canada (which has no such restrictions) sent 1.07 million visitors to Cuba last year, figures show. Britain, Germany, Italy and France sent between 101,000 and 154,000 visitors each.

Total foreign tourism to Cuba grew from 2.3 million in 2008 to 2.8 million last year, the figures show, but while Canadian and U.S. visits have increased, visits from Britain, Italy and Spain has dropped substantially over the last five years.

Among the U.S. companies licensed to run tours to Cuba: Grand Circle Foundation, Insight Cuba, Smithsonian Journeys. In June, Travel Weekly reported that several companies had received new licenses to run Cuba trips, including Classic Journeys and the Institute for Shipboard Education, which runs “semester at sea” programs.

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