HAVANA, May 23 (Xinhua) -- Argentine tourist Valentina Fernandez was on her dream vacation after landing in Cuba's capital Havana for the first time with a group of friends.
The 33-year-old was fascinated by the beaches and the island's revolutionary history, including Che Guevara's stay in the Caribbean country.
"This island is wonderful. Its beaches are fantastic and the people are very kind. We are having a great time here," she told Xinhua as she headed towards the Malecon, Cuba's most famous seafront promenade.
Cuba also draws repeat visitors, such as Spanish tourist Juan Gonzalez, who along with his wife, two sons and a grandson, was waiting for a bus to the seaside resort of Varadero, some 140 km east of Havana.
The 57-year-old, who has visited Cuba three times, said he and his family like the Cuban cuisine, music and countryside, as well as the country's cultural heritage.
"We went on a guided tour of the city center to see the influence of Spain on the Cuban architectural style," he said. "We have also talked with many people."
In the first four months of 2023, Cuba received more than 1.2 million foreign visitors, up by 190 percent from a year earlier, according to the Cuban Ministry of Tourism and National Statistics and Information Bureau.
Canada tops the list with some 495,000 visitors, followed by the United States and Russia with 54,000 and 44,000 respectively.
"The rise in fuel prices and the U.S. blockade against the island have impacted the flow of European tourists toward the island," said Tourism Minister Juan Carlos Garcia.
Cuba's government hopes to see about 3.5 million foreign visitors this year as the tourism sector gradually recovers to pre-pandemic levels of more than 4 million annual visitors.
In 2022, Cuba welcomed approximately 1.7 million foreign visitors, less than the 2.5 million the government had projected.
Cuban business owner Mario Abreu believes a thriving tourism industry can considerably improve living standards in Cuba.
"Tourism is crucial for our economy. It benefits people who rent houses to tourists, taxi drivers, and those who work in the hospitality sector," he said. "We need more tourists to come." ■