- Associated Press - Thursday, July 7, 2016

HAVANA (AP) - The number of American travelers to Cuba rose 84 percent for the first half of the year compared with the same January-June period in 2015, authorities said Thursday.

Cuban state news agency Prensa Latina reported that Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero announced the figure to members of parliament, reflecting a continuing surge in U.S. interest in the island amid a broader diplomatic thaw between the Cold War foes that began in late 2014.

The total number of U.S. visitors was not made public, though for all of last year, nearly 160,000 leisure travelers flew to Cuba. The figures do not include the hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans who travel to the island each year on family visits.

As part of the push to normalize relations, U.S. President Barack Obama has loosened “people-to-people” cultural and educational visits to Cuba, and Americans are now able to plan their own trips and self-certify that they comply with U.S. regulations. Washington is also in the process of approving U.S. commercial airline service to the island, with flights expected to begin in the fall.

Overall tourism to Cuba was up 11.7 percent for the first six months of 2016, with a total of 2,147,600 travelers to the island, Prensa Latina reported. There were also significant increases in visitors from nations such as Spain, Italy, Poland and Germany.

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