Ecotourism in Cuba: A model for sustainable economic development

Douglas Rader

EDF’s Cuba Program Director Dan Whittle co-authored this post.

With relations between the United States and Cuba defrosting and investment interest building for the island in the U.S. and beyond, Cuba is at a crossroads.

Will its tropical coastlines soon be home to towering cruise ships and sprawling resorts, or is there a more sustainable way forward for a nation that cares deeply about its unique natural heritage? Many Cubans think there is, and we agree.

Cuba’s approach to conservation and environmental protection is already a model for other Caribbean nations. The country is now positioned to be a regional model also for sustainable economic development.

By scaling up its small and exclusive ecotourism industry, Cuba can stimulate investment and create jobs, while preserving the coral reefs and big fish that make it one of the world’s most special places.

Emerging ecotourism industry points the way

Today, Cuba’s pristine Jardines de la Reina National Marine Park – Gardens of the Queen – is home to a sustainable, but small, tourism enterprise that provides badly needed economic impetus for small coastal communities.

Nearly one-quarter of the families in Jucaro – the small fishing village from which trips to the Gardens depart – already have a source of income directly related to the largest marine protected area in the Caribbean.

The current ecotourism operation in the Gardens is tiny still; only 1,500 visitors per year are granted access to this world-class treasure.

But the industry also has a tiny spatial and ecological footprint, which means it could be replicated at broader scales across Cuba’s two southern archipelagos, and become an economic and ecological centerpiece for broader development plans for the region.

There are, of course, challenges associated with building out the ecotourism industry in the Gardens of the Queen, like elsewhere.

Fragile ecosystems and remote natural areas can only sustain a certain amount of infrastructure to accommodate new visitors. A careful assessment of potential environmental impacts, in accordance with existing Cuban law, should precede and guide any new tourism development.

If such precautions are not taken, these special places will disappear along with the tourists who loved them. But we feel hopeful Cuba will choose the right path, because the Cuban people know they sit atop a coral treasure box.

Cuba took bold action to protect reefs

Cuba’s coast is often portrayed as a place frozen in time – a selling point to tourists willing to pay a premium for a unique experience. Of course, there’s more to the story.

The people of Cuba have chosen to protect wide swaths of their most valuable habitats – ocean and land alike – in a national network of parks and other protected areas.

For marine waters and ecosystems, the goal is to eventually protect an astonishing 25 percent of Cuba’s shallow-water area, with a focus on four island arcs each the size of the Florida Keys.

Today, the Gardens of the Queen is among just a few places in the Western Hemisphere where you can still see dense stands of elkhorn corals. They are reminiscent of the reefs that existed in Florida in the 1960s and elsewhere before disease wiped most of them from the map.

The Gardens also boasts many species of sharks – Caribbean reef, silky, lemon, nurse, whale sharks and more – along with large numbers of big groupers, snappers and other reef fishes.

These waters are special in their own right, but they’re also tightly linked to the health of coral reefs in the United States, Mexico, the Bahamas and the rest of the broader West Central Atlantic.

If and when Cuba matches up the ecological values of different areas in the region with their highest and best economic uses, it can create a portfolio of approaches that can serve Cubans – and those of us down-current from Cuba – now and in the future.