US visits to Cuba almost double despite Trump sanctions

©Agence France-Presse

Cuba hopes to welcome five million tourists this year and things are going well so far, with a seven percent increase over the first four months compared to 2018

Havana (AFP) - Cuba's relationship with Donald Trump's administration may be worsening, but that didn't stop the island nation from welcoming more than a quarter million US visitors in the first four months of 2019.

That was a 93.5 percent increase from the same period in 2018, said Michel Bernal, the commercial director at Cuba's tourism ministry.

The United States remains second only to Canada -- with 624,530 visitors in the first four months of the year -- in terms of tourist numbers heading to Cuba.

"Despite defamatory campaigns against Cuba, 13.5 percent of tourists that visit us say they chose the island for its safety," said Bernal.

Cuba welcomed 1.93 million visitors in the first four months of the year, a seven percent increase on 2018.

However, visitors from major European nations France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain were down by 10-13 percent.

Tourism represents the second most important economic activity in Cuba, behind medical services.

Cuba says it hopes to welcome five million visitors this year -- but Washington's ramped up sanctions against Havana last month could hurt its tourism sector.

On April 17, Washington announced new restrictions on US travel and remittances to the Caribbean island nation.

It also gave the green light to lawsuits in US courts against companies operating in properties seized since Cuban revolution in 1959.

While Trump's predecessor Barack Obama eased restrictions against Cuba to encourage US tourism to the cash-strapped island nation, the new president has taken a more bellicose approach to Washington's Cold War enemy.

Last week he threatened Cuba with "full and complete" sanctions if it doesn't end its support for Venezuela President and socialist ally Nicolas Maduro.

Trump claims Cuba is providing military support to Maduro. Havana denies this, and says it only has 20,000 health professionals in the South American country.