Despite storms, Cuba expects tourism to grow


HAVANA—Cuba expects tourism to increase 13 percent this year despite destruction from hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which damaged colonial and coastal towns, and hit picturesque hideaways in the tobacco-growing west even harder.
Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said Saturday that officials believe foreign visitors will top 2.3 million in 2008, up nearly 200,000 from last year.

The sector is “bursting with vitality despite the passage of these hurricanes,” he said during an event at the University of Havana. Cuba had previously announced that tourism rose 15 percent in the first quarter.

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Marrero said that dipped only slightly after Gustav smacked western Cuba in late August. Ike hit eight days later, slamming into the island’s eastern tip and moving west over much of Cuba.

Marrero said hotels and other tourism infrastructure were damaged in the provinces of Camaguey and Holguin and in tobacco-growing Pinar del Rio, home to the limestone mountain-flanked town of Vinales. But the beaches most popular with international visitors were largely spared.

Foreign visitors to Cuba peaked at about 2.3 million in 2005 but slipped to 2.1 million last year—dealing a financial blow to a nation that relies on tourism for much of its hard-currency revenue. Tourism brought in some US$2.2 billion last year.

Canada, Britain, Spain and Italy rank as top sources of visitors. Washington’s trade embargo prohibits American tourists from coming to Cuba.