By WILL WEISSERT
HAVANA (AP) — Cuba announced Wednesday that its crucial tourism industry appears to be recovering from a two-year slump, with a 15 percent increase in visitors during the first quarter of the year.
The number of international visitors topped the 1 million mark on Monday, 22 days faster than last year, state-controlled news media reported. Officials credited well-attended conferences and trade fairs for the increase, singling out an ongoing gathering dedicated to cultural tourism that has attracted more than 1,000 visitors.
Maria Elena Lopez, a vice minister of tourism, reported a 15 percent increase in foreign visitors this year compared with the first three months of 2007, but she did not provide further data, according to the Communist Party daily Granma.
The number of foreign tourists peaked at about 2.32 million in 2005, but slipped to 2.15 last year, according to official statistics.
Officials said the decline of 70,000 visitors in 2007 cut revenues by nearly US$14.5 million (euro9.3 million) below 2006 levels — a blow to a nation that has turned to tourism to generate much of its hard currency revenue.
Washington's nearly 50-year-old trade embargo prohibits American tourists from coming to Cuba. Canada, Britain, Spain and Italy rank as top sources of visitors to the island.
Raul Castro succeeded his brother Fidel as president in February and promptly dropped bans that had kept ordinary Cubans from staying at luxury hotels and renting cars, which might help bolster tourism during off months when fewer foreign visitors come.