HAVANA — Cuba welcomed its 2 millionth tourist of 2008 on Friday with a salsa band, strong mojitos and word that the island expects to set a record this year for foreign visitors despite three hurricanes and a global economic crisis.
Authorities hung a red-and-white banner reading “welcome visitor” in five languages just outside the customs area as Air Canada Flight 370 from Toronto touched down at Havana Airport.
“Is this a nice way to start? I’ll say!” said Helen Lueke, a secretary in her 60s from Sherwood Park, Canada, who comes to Cuba about once a year — but has never been greeted at the airport with mojitos.
Cuba didn’t single out a visitor No. 2 million, rather symbolically marked the flight’s arrival along with similar celebrations at international airports in the eastern city of Santiago and in Varadero, the famous beach resort northeast of Havana.
Alexis Trujillo, first vice minister of tourism, said Cuba has surpassed 2 million annual foreign visitors every year since 2004.
But Nov. 14 is the earliest date the communist nation has ever reached the mark, he added, leading Cuba to predict it would pass its 2005 record of 2.3 million visitors.
Trujillo said tourism is up 10.7 percent compared to last year, despite Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma, which destroyed nearly half a million homes and did more than $10 billion in damage when they roared through the island in recent weeks.
Hotels, restaurants and other tourist sites were damaged in coastal areas in the provinces of Camaguey and Holguin, as well as in tobacco-growing Pinar del Rio. But the storms spared Cuba’s top tourist destinations: Havana’s crumbling but majestic, decades-old architecture, and Varadero, which Trujillo said would attract 1 million foreign visitors alone this year for the first time.
Washington’s trade embargo prohibits most Americans from coming to Cuba.
But Canada, Britain, Spain and Italy rank as the island’s top sources of visitors. Foreign tourists to Cuba topped 2.3 million in 2005 but fell in 2006 and slipped again to 2.1 million last year — dealing a financial blow to a nation that relies on tourism for much of its hard-currency revenue. The industry brought in $2.2 billion in 2007.