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Cuba rolls out red carpet for liner

A salsa band, dancing schoolchildren and showgirls in bikini tops and feather headdresses welcomed around 1,500 tourists on a British cruise liner - one of the biggest ships to visit Cuba in years.

Once a frequent sight, cruise ships had become a rarity since 2006, after then president Fidel Castro complained that the industry did little more than flood the communist-governed country with rubbish.

But the cash-strapped government now led by Fidel's younger brother Raul appears to have taken a rosier view. Tourism Ministry official Jose Manuel Bisbe said the arrival of the Thomson Dream underscored the recent resurgence of cruise traffic to the island.

In a brief address as passengers in shorts and flip-flops streamed off the ship, Mr Bisbe said a number of deals had been signed with European cruise operators to add regular stops in Cuban ports, and more accords were in the works.

"We think that more than anything, this change reflects the operators' understanding ... of all Cuba's attributes as a destination," said Mr Bisbe, the ministry's commercial director.

Each passenger spent an average of 50 to 200 dollars a day on the island, he said, adding that officials hoped increased traffic would pump "several million dollars" into the lacklustre Cuban economy this year.

Mr Bisbe did not specify how many cruise passengers were expected to dock in Cuban ports in 2011, but said about 10,000 visited the island last year, down from some 100,000 passengers in 2005.

He blamed the downturn on the 2006 purchase of Pullmantur Cruises - a Spanish company that was among the biggest operator of tours to Cuba - by Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises. Washington's trade embargo bars US tourists from visiting Cuba and bans nearly all business between both countries, so dockings dried up after the company changed hands.

Cuba rolled out the red carpet to welcome the Thomson Dream, a nine-deck behemoth with four restaurants, two swimming pools, a casino and a disco.

Little girls in traditional white dresses and colourful sashes and others inexplicably decked out in bee costumes performed as waiters to hand out shot-sized samples of Havana Club rum to the disembarking passengers.

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