HAVANA, March 22 Cuba expects its economic
growth to slip down a gear this year to around 10 percent but
remain among the strongest in the region, a senior government
official said on Thursday.
Cuba, which reported growth of 12.5 percent in 2006, is
feeling a pinch in its vital tourist industry this year, due in
part to a warm European winter and cheaper destinations
elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Cuban tour operators have played down any impact on tourism
from Fidel Castro's health problems.
"I think that this year the economy will have a growth rate
of not less than 10 percent. But certainly, very strong
growth," Osvaldo Martinez, the head of parliament's economic
commission, told Reuters.
"To sustain growth of 12.5 percent is extremely difficult.
Growth of 10 percent would very likely be once more the highest
in Latin America, so there is nothing to worry about," he said,
after a conference on the United Nations' World Water Day.
Communist-run Cuba calculates its economic growth rate
using a unique method that adds in free education, medical care
and other social services provided by the state.
Under that methodology, economic growth has revved up to
three times its pace at the start of the decade when the
country was pulling out of the slump triggered by the 1991
collapse of the Soviet Union, its former benefactor.
Foreign exchange earnings have nearly doubled over the last
two years, thanks mainly to the export of medical and other
services to ally Venezuela and soaring nickel prices.
Yet Cuba still relies heavily on tourism, which brought in
$2.4 billion last year.
The number of tourists arriving in January and February
dropped 7 percent and 13 percent respectively from a year
earlier, according to preliminary official figures. That was
after visitor levels declined around 4 percent in 2006.
Cancellations due to fears of possible political turmoil
after Castro handed over power to his brother, Raul Castro, in
July following emergency intestinal surgery have been minimal,
according to tour operators.
Martinez said Castro's health continued to improve.
"He's recovering normally and satisfactorily," he said, but
declined to confirm speculation that the iconic 80-year-old
revolutionary could soon reappear in public.