HAVANA (Reuters) - A steep drop in U.S. travellers to Cuba after a tightening of travel restrictions by President Donald Trump helped drive a 7 percent slide in foreign visitors to the Caribbean island in the first three months of 2018, Cuban official data showed on Tuesday.
The U.S. restrictions and warning on travel to the Communist-run island were to blame for the lower number of U.S. arrivals from the same period a year ago, the Cuban Tourism Ministry’s commercial director, Michel Bernal, told a news conference in Havana.
Another issue affecting Cuba’s tourism sector is unjustified worries about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma last September, he said, given that the country had long since fixed its tourist installations.
“The total of U.S. clients is only 56.6 percent of what it was in 2017,” Bernal said. The state-run Cuban News Agency published the percentage decline in overall foreign visits separately, citing tourism authorities.
The number of Americans travelling to Cuba surged after former U.S. President Barack Obama reached a landmark detente with then-Cuban President Raul Castro in 2014 and eased travel restrictions while maintaining a ban on tourism.
Increased U.S. arrivals to Havana in particular fostered the rapid growth of the country’s fledgling private sector, with many Cubans rushing to open bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants.
Tourism became one of the few bright spots in an economy struggling with heavy state controls, a difficult market reform process, a decline in aid from ally Venezuela and lower global commodity prices.
But Trump last year made it harder again for individual Americans to travel to Cuba, as part of his tougher stance on the country.
A few months later, his administration issued a warning on travel there because of a mysterious spate of illnesses among U.S. diplomats stationed in Havana.
Cuban officials and many foreign tourism experts maintain Cuba is one of the safest destinations in the world.
The government still hopes the number of foreign visitors will reach the 5 million mark this year, Bernal said. It rose 16.2 percent to a record 4.7 million in 2017.
The number of Cubans living abroad who travelled back to the island jumped 21 percent in the first three months of the year, he said, and was showing steady growth. Other top markets were Russia and Mexico, which grew 32 and 23 percent respectively.
Bernal said Canadians still made up the largest group of visitors to Cuba by far, although he did not give any specifics.
Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Peter Cooney