Cuba aims for one million US tourists if ban lifted

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Cuba could host up to one million US tourists in the first year its northern neighbor lifted restrictions on travel to the Communist island, Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said Thursday.

"We can guarantee what's necessary for quality operations and our investments are increasing to improve comfort," Marrero said at a two-day meeting between Cuban tourism officials and scores of US tour operators in Cancun, Mexico.

Cuba received around 2.5 million tourists last year, mainly from Canada, Europe and Asia, according to Marrero.

Tourism is the second largest source of foreign currency for Cuba after its medical missions abroad, and the nation has been positioning itself as a down-to-earth tropical Caribbean island with gorgeous beaches.

The Cancun meeting aimed to discuss potential projects should the decades-old US travel ban be lifted - a move that would "benefit the interests and citizens of the United States," he said.

The gathering came amid heated US debate on the issue, and a proposal to lift the ban in Congress.

With Cuba having receded as a Cold War security threat, the country's human rights record is now at the center of US policy toward the country.

US President Barack Obama on Wednesday slammed Cuba for its continued political and human rights repression and called for an end to the Communist regime's "clenched fist" policy against its own people.

US Democrat Senator Byron Dorgan told the Cancun conference by telephone that Cuba's detention of an American accused of being an intelligence agent was an obstacle to the lifting of the travel ban.

Alan Gross, 60, was working in Cuba for a development contractor when he was arrested in December.

"Frankly, Alan in prison is a problem and impediment for changes of policies to Cuba," Dorgan said.

Cuba's Marrero refused to comment on the issue.