HAVANA (AP) -- Cuba's trade with China fell by nearly a third in 2009 to about $1.5 billion, further evidence of just how much the island is slashing spending amid crippling economic woes.

China's ambassador to Cuba, Chen Feng, told Havana's state-run weekly magazine Opciones that his country's economic ties to Cuba were down 31.5 percent compared to the previous year.

But in the remarks published Monday, he also announced plans to collaborate with Cuba on a new luxury hotel on Havana's western outskirts that will cost about $117 million and be built later this year.

It was not clear if the 2009 trade figure included $78 million in credits, donations and hurricane relief Chinese President Hu Jintao promised during a November 2008 visit to the island.

The drop in 2009 was consistent with sharp tumbles in Cuban imports from other major trading partners such as Venezuela and Spain, as well as food and farm products it is allowed to receive from the United States despite Washington's 48-year-old trade embargo.

Cuba's economy is struggling to overcome a triple-whammy of bad news: Three major hurricanes did more than $10 billion in damage in 2008, the global economic crisis dampened tourism and a drop in commodities prices hurt nickel sales for much of 2009.

China is Cuba's second-largest trading partner behind Venezuela, where socialist President Hugo Chavez helps keep the Cuban economy afloat by providing more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day in exchange for island doctors, who provide free medical care in his country, and other social services.

The economic ties to Beijing have brought many tangible benefits to Cuba, including about 4,000 new Yutong buses that have replaced smoke-belching, Soviet-era buses.

Chen said Cuba will continue importing Chinese goods, primarily for its electrical industry, as well as communications, transportation and agriculture.

Last year, Cuba's government was an investor in the construction of the new 868-room Gran Melia Shanghai in that Chinese city.

The money for the new 650-room resort at the Hemingway Marina on Havana's outskirts will be financed 49 percent by Cuba's government and 51 percent by China, the ambassador said.

Copyright 2010 The AP.

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