updated 3/26/2010 1:22:59 PM ET 2010-03-26T17:22:59

A U.S. senator urged Cuba on Thursday to free a jailed American contractor to help persuade Congress to lift a travel ban that ended American tourism to the Caribbean island in 1962.

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Cuban officials have been holding Alan P. Gross, a Maryland-based U.S. contractor, since December, accusing him of spying. The man's family says he is a development worker helping Cuban Jewish groups.

A 1962 travel ban sharply restricts visits by U.S. citizens to communist-governed Cuba. The law requires U.S. government permission to spend any money there.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, said he would like to see that ban lifted, but said the detention of Gross is problematic.

"I think it's just plain wrong that Cuba is the only country in the world that the U.S. government says it's criminal to visit without a license," Dorgan said at a U.S.-Cuba tourism conference in Cancun.

President Barack Obama has indicated interest in easing restrictions, as he already has for Cuban-Americans traveling to the island — but in exchange for human rights improvements.

Cuban officials say 2.4 million tourists, including about 41,000 Americans, visited the island last year. They anticipate 1.7 million U.S. citizens would come if restrictions were lifted.

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