By Marc Frank | Reuters
Cuba celebrated Sunday the arrival of a million tourists in record time, despite U.S. efforts to undermine the Communist nation’s most important economic sector and amid a shake-up over corruption.
“In 2002, we reached the figure (a million visitors) on July 29 and in 2003 on June 29,” said a statement from the Tourism Ministry, read out amid dancing and spiced rum drinks at Havana’s Hotel Nacional.
The statement said the industry was on track to attract a record 2 million tourists this year.
The good news came as President Bush targeted the industry in an effort to tighten the four-decade-old U.S. embargo on the island.
Bush strengthened prohibitions on Americans traveling to Cuba and earlier this month announced Cuban-Americans could visit home only once every three years, instead of annually.
Americans must seek government authorization to visit Cuba under the embargo.
Some 120,000 Cuban-Americans and 67,600 Americans made the trip in 2002 under regulations dating back to the Clinton administration.
The government reported 1.9 million tourists visited last year and direct and indirect revenues were $2.1 billion, more than 40 percent of the Caribbean island’s dollar earnings.
Cuba’s tourism industry, like the economy in general, is controlled by the state.
“There are less Americans coming, but many more Canadians and British. So far it has been an excellent year, despite Bush,” the Cuba-based sales manager of a major European hotel chain said, asking his name not be used.
Cuba began developing the tourism industry after the demise of former-benefactor the Soviet Union left it without dollars to purchase fuel, food and other products abroad.
Tourism, which grew at a 19 percent clip in the 1990s and at a bit under 10 percent since then, is credited with lifting the country out of the depths of its worst crisis ever.
Yet Communist authorities are unhappy about loose spending and corruption that has limited profits.
Top executives from the country’s largest tourism group, Cubanacan, were fired late last year and the tourism minister was replaced in February.
Industry insiders report many other ministry executives were removed since then.
Communist party cadres are being shown a video featuring Defense Minister Raul Castro, President Castro’s younger brother and chosen successor, denouncing corruption and wasteful spending in the industry and criticizing the former tourism minister for not doing enough about it, people who have viewed the film said.