Cuba has been taunting me for two decades. Its renown, made palpably present here in the United States through its insuppressible culture (Buena Vista Social Club is just the tip of the iceberg!), has been a constant lure. But, based as I am in New York City, Cuba is so very close and yet so very far.
All politics aside for the moment, Cuba’s resistance to many contemporary practices and its notoriety for so many wrong reasons (as well as quite a few right ones – in terms of education and access to clean water, medicine and housing, the U.N.’s annual Human Development Report has ranked Cuba among the top 10 developing countries) have made it such a misfit of the Western Hemisphere that my compulsion to want to experience it firsthand is powerful. And I’m not alone; Americans are reportedly traveling to Cuba in record numbers.
The most compelling draw for me, however, isn’t entirely typical. I’m attracted to the country’s abundance of natural and cultural resources and the safeguards in place for their conservation. Cuba boasts the largest untouched rainforest, unspoiled reefs and intact wetlands in the Caribbean islands. More generally, in contrast to pretty much everywhere else in the region, Cuba’s nature has remained fairly unmolested, especially in the last 50 years, leaving in place habitats that have been recognized as the richest biota in the West Indies, complete with the highest biodiversity and degree of endemism (plants and animals unique to the country).
Across more than 1,600 islands (and many more islets and keys), Cuba counts extensive mangrove colonies, seagrass beds and healthy coral that provide a home to hundreds of marine species, including sea turtles, dolphins, manatees, sharks, reef fish and more. On land, this 15th largest island on the planet has set aside 263 protected areas, amounting to approximately 22% of the total surface area and encompassing six UNESCO biospheres like the Peninsula de Zapata, the Caribbean’s most extensive wetlands; two UNESCO Natural World Heritage sites (as well as six cultural ones a few of which are in notably beautiful natural areas); and 10 national parks. The result is a safe haven for a spellbinding diversity of creatures, especially the indigenous ones.
Will It Last?
Cuba’s environmental splendor is immensely appealing, especially in light of its fragility. It has been called “a sort of ecological Brigadoon, offering a vision of the Caribbean of long ago.” But while there is much to laud about what is currently in place, Cuba has not been free from the pressures of modern development, such as uncontrolled logging, the conversion of low-lying areas into agricultural properties (especially sugarcane fields), overexploitation of wildlife, the introduction of non-indigenous plants and urban expansion polluting coastal areas.
Impressive progress has apparently nevertheless been made in reversing some of the damage done by unchecked “progress” in the past, including a decades-long aggressive tree-planting strategy and a policy of requiring obligatory guides for hikes in naturally sensitive areas. But there is great concern about what could happen at the hands of opportunity-hungry businesses as reforms relax controls within Cuba and the possible liberalization of travel to Cuba from the U.S. turns into greater and greater numbers of arrivals.
Of course, it’s not like Cuba is without tourists and investment. During the more than 50 years of the U.S. trade embargo, many other nations, including Spain, Canada, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Germany, France and more have been establishing business relationships. There are also plenty of foreign tourists – approximately 2.9 million in 2012 (a record) with more expected in 2013 and the years that follow. Hand in hand with that, and guided in part by Cuba’s current leader, Raul Castro, has been the modernization and expansion of the country’s tourist infrastructure.
There is, however, no question that the possible end of the U.S. trade embargo will change everything. And that the conservation of Cuba’s deliciously raw environment hangs in the balance.
If You Go Today, Lead by Example
There’s growing clamor from experts who fear “devastating results” if the U.S. and Cuba normalize relations. Tourism numbers could skyrocket and the economic pressures that come with them could, quite literally, trample everything. Or, in anticipation of that, Cuba could follow the lead of other newcomer countries to tourism (notably Bhutan, but also the likes of Laos and Myanmar) to develop real and enforceable sustainability controls designed to protect Cuba’s natural and cultural, and consequently highly marketable appeal.
This is where the traveler (and travel media) come in. For controlled and sustainable tourism development to guide responsible change in Cuba, travelers need to demonstrate its value with their feet and their wallets, insisting on the kinds of genuine, natural and cultural experiences that can only come from preservation of what is presently in place, NOT generic bus tours, all-inclusive resorts and reef-killing beachfront condos.
How Can You Be Part of That?
You could be an agent of positive change if you travel to Cuba today through a licensed Cuba tour operator focusing on educational and cultural travel. Since 2011, there have been new and legal changes allowing for Americans to again travel to Cuba. While the full U.S. trade embargo can only be lifted by the U.S. Congress, the Obama administration has re-loosened travel restrictions to allow for “purposeful” and “people-to-people” contact.
The stated goal of such travel may be politically opportunistic – to help speed systemic change in Cuba – but I believe that such change can and should include talk about the responsible management of Cuba’s unique natural and cultural assets. After all, the U.S. travel regulations require detailed itineraries for each trip, so you can be confident of the experiences in store for you and choose the right one.
There is, however, still a lot more homework to be done by a responsible traveler with a trip planned to Cuba. “First thing every tourist should do is read about Cuba before coming here,” commented New York City native Conner Gorry, a journalist living in Cuba since 2002 and now also co-managing Cuba Libro, the country’s first English-language bookstore/cafe. “I can’t tell you how many people come here without even a basic idea of where they’re traveling. This is a complex, unique place and educating yourself on the context into which you’ll be inserted is invaluable.”
Other items on Gorry’s list of the kinds of ethical actions visitors can take include:
- learning a few words of (Cuban) Spanish;
- studying a bit about the two currencies and what they mean, including what they can and can’t buy (no, one is not for locals and the other for tourists);
- spreading your money around and being careful about where and how to make donations so that they actually go to the people who need them the most;
- boiling water or bringing a water purifier or tablets/drops to avoid the little plastic bottles that contribute so much to landfills on an island where there’s nowhere else for it to go.
Gorry was also quite adamant about wanting everyone to keep an open mind, since “most of what you probably know about Cuba is a myth.” One exercise she recommends for first-time travelers is to write down what you expect to see/hear/smell/feel while in Cuba and then, once on the ground, jot down what you’re actually seeing/hearing/smelling/feeling. “The differences can be astounding and point up how misinformed most of the world is about this island.”
Whatever you do, while all trips are likely to include some of Cuba’s highlights and landmarks, the right kind of tour should, in keeping with the people-to-people rules, allow visitors to realize that the musicians, artists, naturalists and local birders themselves constitute much more to Cuba than just the music, culture, cigars, rum and vintage cars.
Win Travel Certificates, Gear and More
Keen to travel to Cuba? (I am!) International Expeditions, which is licensed by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control to conduct authorized people-to-people travel to Cuba is offering the chance to win travel certificates with them, as well as other prizes.
+ Grand prize: $500 travel certificate and a gear pack consisting of two hats, two memory-foam travel pillows, Eagle Creek packable daypack, luggage duffle, collapsible water bottle and daypack first aid kit
Click here or on the contest announcement below to go to the contest homepage.
International Expeditions was one of the founding members of The International Ecotourism Society and takes to heart its determination “to stimulate an interest in, develop an understanding of, and create an appreciation for the great natural and cultural wonders of our Earth.” The company was founded on the belief that those who feel a deep connection to an environment and its people are more compelled to preserve those wonders. International Expeditions has been named among the Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth by National Geographic ADVENTURE and one of the World’s Best Tour Operators & Safari Outfitters by Travel + Leisure.