US visits to Cuba up 20 percent last year: official

The number of US travelers visiting Cuba climbed 20 percent last year despite Washington's decades-old restrictions on travel to the communist country, the Cuban government said Wednesday.

A total of 63,046 US citizens visited the Caribbean island in 2010, the highest number in at least the last six years and a fifth more than the 52,455 who came in 2009, according to Cuba's national office of statistics.

Americans who visit Cuba must receive permission from the US Department of the Treasury in accordance with a trade embargo Washington imposed in 1962 in the wake of Fidel Castro's communist revolution.

The number of Americans visiting Cuba has steadily grown in recent years, but has not yet returned to a peak in 2001, when 78,789 came to the island.

US President Barack Obama has eased travel restrictions since assuming office, most recently in January when he expanded religious and educational travel and allowed any US airport to offer charter flights to Cuba.

He has also restored cultural exchange initiatives suspended by his predecessor George W. Bush, who took a tougher line on Havana.

Americans used to flock to Cuba's casinos, luxury hotels and beaches in the years before the 1959 revolution but largely stayed away during the Cold War, when tensions often ran high.