Cuba at a crossroads

As development looms, the island faces a stark choice

Two decades behind their Caribbean neighbors, Cuba turned to tourism for economic development in earnest only in the 1990s. “Cuba’s late start in tourism may be a blessing,” says EDF’s Dan Whittle, our Cuba program director. “The island has the opportunity to get it right and avoid the problems facing so many other coastal tourist destinations.”

While Cuba has its fair share of environmental problems, it remains remarkably unspoiled compared to other tropical coastal areas such as southern Florida and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where mangrove forests have been bulldozed and wetlands drained to make way for luxury hotels, golf resorts, marinas and cruise ships.

What development path will Cuba take?

Tourism remains central to Cuba’s economic development, and Cuba plans to build new facilities to accommodate more tourists. The number of visitors is expected to increase 10% annually in the coming years and even more should the U.S. embargo be lifted. European and Canadian visitors already flock to the island’s sandy white beaches and natural beauty, and Cuba ranks high among Caribbean nations for drawing large numbers of visitors and an influx of tourism revenues.

“Tourism has become the economic engine of Cuba,” says EDF’s Denise Choy Stetten, program manager. “This could be a boon for Cuba’s stagnant economy but would threaten vulnerable wildlife and habitat if critical safeguards are not enforced.”

Many Cubans share our conservation goals and believe that the island’s natural heritage can be the backbone of a thriving economy. Because of Cuba’s size and its rich biodiversity, the island could become an eco-tourist magnet, luring bird lovers, divers, fishermen, hikers and other nature lovers.

Choosing eco-tourism

Under a special license from the U.S. government, EDF is collaborating with Cuban partners to make sure that environmental protection and economic growth go hand in hand. For the last decade, we have worked with Cuban experts to identify ways in which to implement new environmental laws that lay the foundation for Cuba to be a model of sustainable development throughout the Caribbean.

In turn, Cubans’ success in studying and protecting mangrove forests and other essential fish habitat provides scientists and managers in the United States with valuable lessons we can apply here.

EDF is also assisting Cuban officials to find more sustainable ways to manage their ecological reserves while building the tourism industry Cuba so desperately needs. One way to do this is surprisingly simple: Bring environmental and tourism managers together to discuss balancing growth with environmental protection.

To inform developers and government agencies about watershed protection and sustainable land use, EDF wrote a coastal policy handbook (PDF in Spanish) with Cuban experts. That handbook is now helping guide future development.

“The Cubans have every opportunity to create a brand different from any other Caribbean nation,” says Michael Finley, the former superintendent of Everglades, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks. "They are at the point where they can distinguish themselves … from other resource-degraded resorts.”

Cuba: Preserving the cradle of the Caribbean