MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- More than 5,000 Cubans have visited Nicaragua so far this year, a 900% increase over the total for all of 2018, Nicaraguan officials said Wednesday.
It lends evidence to anecdotal accounts from Cuban migrants who say they passed through Nicaragua en route to the U.S.-Mexico border, where they are requesting asylum.
Others come to buy hard-to-find goods for resale in Cuba, and Nicaraguan officials say still others are drawn by the country's volcanoes and lakes.
"We have has a very significant arrival from Cuban tourists," Ana Carolina García, Nicaragua National Tourism Institute promotion director, said on the pro-government Channel 4. "Last year we had 556 Cubans and today we've already had more than 5,000."
Nicaragua has made it easier for Cubans to obtain visas. They need just a passport, photos and a $30 fee.
García said the visits increased after Venezuelan airline Conviasa started a Havana-Managua-Caracas route three times a week in December.
The deteriorating economic situation for many Cubans and the loosening of visa restrictions helped make Nicaragua a favored destination.
While some come to shop, others embark on an overland trek to the U.S.-Mexico border.
In 2017, the U.S. government ended the so-called "wet foot, dry foot" policy, which essentially had allowed Cubans who reached U.S. soil to stay. Rather than attempting to cross to the Florida coast on rickety boats, Cubans began moving through Central America and Mexico to the border.
Along the U.S.-Mexico border, 10,910 Cubans crossed in a six-month period, more than the 7,079 in the prior 12 months.
García, the tourism official, said the influx of Cubans had softened the blow to Nicaragua's tourism industry since anti-government protests were violently repressed beginning more than a year ago. Nicaragua's private sector has estimated the tourism industry lost $500 million during the year of unrest.