Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue met Monday with officials from Cuba's Chamber of Commerce and its food import company, part of a two-day visit to explore his state's trade and tourism possibilities here.
The Republican governor is leading a 43-member delegation that includes state lawmakers, port officials and representatives from agribusiness and the University of Georgia.
The meetings were "as much about building a relationship with (Cuban officials) as learning about the business environment there," spokesman Bert Brantley said.
Perdue's schedule did not include a meeting with President Raul Castro or his brother Fidel, who once regularly met with visiting U.S. politicians but has seen far fewer visitors since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery and disappearing from public view nearly four years ago.
Washington's 48-year-old embargo prohibits most trade between the two countries. But sales of American food and farm items to Cuba have been allowed since 2000, and the U.S. has been the island's top source of agricultural goods since 2004.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Georgia ranks third among states in exports to Cuba, including nearly $16.3 million so far this year in goods such as poultry, soybeans, pork, sausage and margarine.
In a statement, Perdue said Georgia could one day be a hub for Cubans visiting the U.S. via Atlanta's international airport — though it is hard now to imagine droves of islanders vacationing in the U.S. since overseas travel requires expensive, often hard-to-obtain official permission.
However, U.S. tourism to Cuba — outlawed in most cases under a federal travel ban that bars American tourists from coming to the island — rose 24 percent last year, according to Cuban government statistics posted online Monday.
The National Office of Statistics reported that more than 52,000 American tourists visited last year, with most presumably coming through third countries like Mexico, Canada and Jamaica, compared with about 42,000 in 2008. It gave no explanation for the increase.
That figure does not include Cuban-Americans, who have been able to make unlimited trips to visit family on the island since the Obama administration eased restrictions in April 2008.
Visits by U.S. governors are fairly common, most recently by New Mexico's Bill Richardson last August. Most duck questions about lifting the embargo since it is currently written into federal law.
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