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U.S. tourism to Cuba revives after months-long Trump slump - sources

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U.S. tourism to Cuba revives after months-long Trump slump - sources

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By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. tourism in Cuba bounced back in June from a months-long slump, bolstered by increased visits from cruise ships that have emerged as the most vibrant part of a sector hurt by deteriorating relations under President Donald Trump.

Three different sources with access to Cuban tourism industry data said 68,000 Americans, not including Americans of Cuban origin on family visits, travelled to the island in June, a 5 percent increase from a year ago.

Even with that revival, the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba for the first half overall - not including Cuban-Americans - slumped 24 percent to 266,000, the sources said.

In the period January through June, some 50 percent of those U.S. visitors arrived on cruise ships, compared with 25 percent a year earlier, as operators such as Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd, Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd added more stops on the island to their itineraries.

The drop in U.S. travel in the first half in part mirrored a broader decline in the Cuban tourism industry as it struggled to recover from last year’s devastating hurricane season in the Caribbean, the sources said.

Still there was also a notable impact from the hostile Trump administration, which has sought to reverse some of Democratic former President Barack Obama's opening to the island and has cracked down on independent Cuban travel by Americans.

Overall tourist arrivals to Cuba were down over 5 percent in the January-June period to roughly 2.5 million. That figure included the number of visitors arriving on cruise ships during the first six months, which was 379,000, up 45 percent.

In terms of boosting the economy, cruise arrivals tend to spend little, while those vacationing on the island spend much more at hotels, bed and breakfasts and restaurants.

The drop in tourism revenue is painful for Cuba’s Communist-run government, which is struggling with declining export revenues and dwindling support from crisis-hit ally Venezuela.

Combined with production problems resulting from bad weather, cuts in energy use and other imported supplies, the tourism slump may result in gross domestic product (GDP) growth of less than the 2 percent forecast by the government, according to Cuban economists who asked to remain anonymous.

The U.S. trade embargo restricts Americans who visit the island to non-tourist activities such as cultural, religious and educational travel or family visits.

The Trump administration has made it more difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba on their own, banned them from patronizing military-owned establishments and issued a travel warning that it may be unsafe to visit there.

The overall visitor numbers also included Cuban-Americans visiting their homeland. That number increased by 21 percent during the first half of this year, to more than 250,000, compared with the same period in 2017, in part because it has become more difficult for relatives to visit the United States, the sources said.

Unexplained health incidents that sickened 26 U.S. diplomats, which the United States has sometimes referred to as attacks, led Washington to cut its Havana embassy to a skeletal staff last year, forcing Cubans to travel to third countries for U.S. visas.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Christian Plumb and Frances Kerry)

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