HAVANA (Reuters) - Revenues from tourism in Cuba rose 15 percent in the first half of 2016 compared with the same period last year, official data showed on Friday, with the number of visitors from the United States soaring around 80 percent.
Tourism income rose to $1.2 billion in the January to June period, the National Statistics Office data showed, helping sustain an economy struggling with lower global commodity prices and a crisis in key ally Venezuela.
The sector is expected to boom further over coming years given easing U.S. restrictions on travel, the return of U.S. cruise ships to the Caribbean island and regular commercial flights between the two countries.
While Canadians still make up the largest group of tourists to Cuba by far, Americans came in third place after Cubans living abroad in the first half of this year, the data showed.
Until very recently, there were more visitors from Germany, Italy, France and Britain than from the United States.
But the tourism sector in a country famed for its beaches, classic cars and fading glamour has changed fast since U.S. and President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro decided to put an end to half a century of Cold War hostility in December 2014.
While the trade embargo still prohibits Americans from visiting Cuba as tourists, the Obama administration has approved 12 categories of exceptions to the ban ranging from cultural travel to business, within which many visitors fit.
The total number of visitors to Cuba was up 11.8 percent, the data showed.
The boom in the tourism sector contrasts starkly with the gloomy picture in the broader economy. Cuba's trade surplus fell more than 40 percent last year, according to data released on Thursday.
Service exports, despite an increase in tourism, were down $1.3 billion. While tourism is becoming increasingly important, receipts from healthcare and other professional workers sent overseas still make up the bulk of Cuban services.
The Cuban hotel occupancy rate remained below 50 percent, the data on Friday showed. Economists say this could be because the state is failing to renovate hotels and instead building new ones, while bed and breakfast inns are also flourishing.
(Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Cynthia Osterman; Writing by Sarah Marsh)