Most people know the island of Cuba for its political position and place in history, but something else makes Cuba such a singular place. Having long been withdrawn from globalization, they have preserved a way of life, as well as fairly healthy ecosystems and environment compared to other islands in the region. But things are changing and more tourists are visiting Cuba, especially with the end of the United States embargo.
This puts pressure on decision makers to make sure their choices don’t adversely affect the environment and don’t lead to what has been seen in other parts of the Caribbean.
Cuba’s unique coral reefs present an amazing opportunity for ecotourism, as divers from around the world come to see coral that have disappeared in other parts of the world. The Gardens of the Queen is one of just a few places in the Western Hemisphere where you can still see dense stands of elkhorn coral.
But with such amazing attractions, tourism will increase and have an impact on these unique ecosystems. Actions need to be taken to ensure the preservation of ecosystems and nature. Cuba already has a head start on this, as 25% of its coastal waters are considered wildlife reserves where no fishing is allowed. Cuba also has an excellent network of nationally protected natural areas with 263 protected areas, including six UNESCO biospheres.
If such measures affect the economy of local fishing villages, ecotourism can help fill the gap by scaling up its small and exclusive ecotourism industry. The current ecotourism operation in the Gardens is still pretty small—about 1,500 visitors per year. This activity has a small ecological footprint, which means it could be replicated at broader scales across Cuba’s other archipelagos and become an economic and ecological centerpiece for broader development plans for the region. This way, Cuba can stimulate investment and create jobs, while preserving the coral reef.
Another example of Cuba’s ecotourism initiatives is a farm that raises a local crocodile species, which attracts tourists eager to see these animals. The revenue is then used to maintain and expand natural reserves and to train local rangers.
Cuba’s agriculture is also an area that attracts tourists. Having been cut off from the chemical fertilizers being used in the western world, many of Cuba’s farms remain organic. Many tourists looking for authenticity are happy to find farms offering healthy local products.
Initiatives such as tiny floating hotels have also been used to attract tourists. By limiting the number of tourists accessing the sites and moving around to mediate the impact of the activity, the impact of building such infrastructure is decreased.
The challenges associated with building out the ecotourism industry are real. Fragile ecosystems can only sustain a certain amount of infrastructure to accommodate new visitors. Before any additional tourism development, there needs to be an assessment of any potential environmental impacts to ensure ecosystems are not affected.
Nevertheless, Cubans know the importance of protecting the nature around them. They have shown their resiliency and willingness to protect their environment and seem to be on the path towards balancing tourism and environmental and ecosystem protection.