Cuba economic growth rises to 4.7 pct in first half -minister

HAVANA, July 15 (Reuters) - Warming relations with the United States and domestic reforms helped Cuba increase year-on-year economic growth to 4.7 percent during the first half of 2015, Economy Minister Marino Murillo told the country’s parliament on Wednesday.

The figure was up from an estimate of 4 percent Murillo made a month ago. It confirmed a trend of higher GDP growth in Cuba, where despite four years of market-oriented reforms the gross domestic product had grown an average 2.3 percent annually since 2011, and rose just 1.3 percent in 2014.

“This is very good, taking into account that last year we only grew 1 percent,” President Raul Castro told the National Assembly, according to a report by the National Information Agency (AIN).

The economy was on track to grow 4 percent for all of 2015, as forecast, Castro said.

The Cuban National Assembly is closed to foreign press, though some details are reported in the official media.

Agriculture was up 4.8 percent led by the sugar industry with 22.6 percent growth, AIN reported. Manufacturing grew 8 percent, construction 8.7 percent and internal trade 6.7 percent.

Tourist arrivals increased more than 15 percent, although earnings lagged behind, in part due to falling values of various currencies against the dollar.

The Tourism Ministry reported last month earnings increased just 4 percent through May.

Cuba measures its foreign earnings in dollars, even though the U.S. economic embargo prohibits doing business with Cuba in dollars.

Three million visitors arrived in Cuba in 2014, including 100,000 Americans and 350,000 Cuban-Americans.

Leisure travel is still banned for Americans but U.S. President Barack Obama in January eased restrictions on officially sanctioned visits such as cultural and religious exchanges.

Experts expect the number of Americans visiting Cuba this year to increase more than 50 percent.

Murillo said Cuba had maintained a positive balance of trade so far this year, but finances were strained due to the lower values of the euro and other currencies against the dollar and prices for some exports such as nickel and petroleum products.

Murillo also told the parliament that the country’s budget deficit was within expectations, as was inflation at between 3 percent to 3.5 percent, according to AIN.

Castro has ushered in reforms such as introducing market mechanisms into agriculture, opening space for small private businesses, loosening regulation of state companies and improving tax and other incentives for foreign investors. (Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Andrew Hay)