HAVANA - Cruise ship tourism to Cuba spiked more than five-fold over the last three years and is up even higher so far in 2015, government officials reported Thursday.
In a statement published on the state-run website Cubadebate, the Transportation Ministry said the number of cruise ship port calls rose from 24 in 2012 to 139 in 2014, while visits by cruise passengers saw a similar jump, from 6,770 to 37,519 during the same period.
Already this year there have been 174 port calls and 62,183 passenger visits through May, according to the ministry's statistics.
The statement called the cruise industry an "important element of tourism development for the country," and said further growth is expected.
The report comes two days after U.S. cruise company Carnival announced a plan to begin running ships to the Caribbean island through its new brand, Fathom, which focuses on trips in which passengers sail to a destination in order to volunteer there.
Amid a gradual thaw between Cold War foes Washington and Havana, Carnival has secured permission from the U.S. Treasury Department but is still awaiting approval from the Cuban government.
The Cuban Transportation Ministry said growth during the last three years "could have been even greater if not for the inhuman measures imposed on us by the U.S. blockade (embargo) which substantially hurts maritime activity" -- a signal that Havana may look favorably on Carnival's proposal and U.S. cruise ships in general.
Carnival hopes to begin the trips in May and says it would be the first American cruise company to visit Cuba since the advent of the embargo, which went into full effect in 1962.
American tourism to Cuba remains illegal under U.S. law, although Washington has relaxed rules in recent years to allow ever-greater numbers of U.S. visitors on cultural, academic, religious and other types of exchanges considered "purposeful travel."
Carnival's weeklong cruises aboard the 710 passenger-capacity Adonia would offer legal "people-to-people" trips in which travelers spend most of the day involved in cultural activities in order to conform to U.S. regulations.
Cruise ships dock regularly in the port of Havana during the winter high season, disgorging hundreds of travelers at a time into the adjacent colonial quarter. The Transportation Ministry also cited Cienfuegos, Santiago and other coastal points as centers of cruise tourism, and highlighted the Isle of Youth as an opportunity for possible future expansion of the sector.
Most Cuban ports are not able to accommodate larger vessels that can hold tens of thousands of people. In Havana, an automobile tunnel that traverses the mouth of the bay prevents the city from dredging deeper to receive lower-drafting ships.
A recently completed upgrade at Mariel, an industrial port about a 45-minute drive west of Havana, could be a possibility if Cuba ever looks to receive the bigger cruise vessels.