HAVANA, April 16 (Xinhua) -- Cuba's tourism industry, now the country's most dynamic economic sector, is looking to boost visitor numbers by attracting larger cruise ships.
International cruise operators, such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, have regularly sailed into Cuban ports. The plan is to expand the ports' infrastructure to accommodate larger passenger ships.
Jose Manuel Bisbe, president of tourism business group Viajes Cuba, believes the cruise segment could take off with ships carrying more than 2,000 passengers.
Bisbe told reporters that currently, 12 different cruises have arrived at the ports of Cienfuegos in central Cuba, Santiago de Cuba in the east, and Havana in the west, but none carried more than 1,000 passengers.
That could change this year, said Bisbe.
Cuba's port infrastructure, including the main three segments mentioned above and a fourth at the Isle of Youth in the southwest, currently handles up to 21 cruise ships a week.
But more than 100 cruises from different countries sail the Caribbean sea each week, as part of an industry segment that generates billions of dollars a year. So the potential for growth -- or more accurately, recovery -- is there, said Bisbe.
Cuba's cruise segment used to receive more than 100,000 passengers a year and generate more than 15 million U.S. dollars in revenue, until the country's main cruise client, Spain's Pullmantur, was bought by U.S. firm Royal Caribbean, which was barred by U.S. laws from doing business with Cuba.
The island's cruise tourism dried up between 2005 and 2007, scaling back to a trickle of just 11,000 passengers.
The sector bounced back after Cuba and the United States restored diplomatic ties, and cruise companies that sail the Caribbean, the world's No.1 cruise destination, once again placed Cuba back on their itineraries, despite existing U.S. sanctions against Cuba.
To get around the restrictions, U.S. cruises to Cuba must offer itineraries with supposed educational, religious, humanitarian or cultural purposes in keeping with U.S. government regulations.
Cruise tourism to Cuba picked up slightly in 2016, with the arrival of 88,000 passengers, and has continued to rise gradually, with some 55,000 passengers arriving in the first two months of 2017, according to Bisbe.
The industry forecasts the total number of cruise passengers will reach 200,000 to 300,000 this year, as Cuba is expected to receive about 4.2 million tourists in total in 2017.