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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Yankees, Come Visit!

Air Date: Week of

Martha Honey reports on the new buzz word in Cuba: "eco-tourism." Careful planning out of concern for the environment is helping this industry to grow. If the travel ban is lifted, Cuba hopes to attract more environmentally minded American travellers.


CURWOOD: Every day around this time of year, thousands of North Americans fill cruise ships and airplanes bound for the Caribbean and warm relief from winter. But they pass right by the closest and once popular destination, Cuba. Cuba's been off limits to US citizens for a generation, but with its economy in tatters the isolated Communist state is making a play for tourists willing to test the US travel ban, and for those from other Western countries which have friendlier relations with the island nation. And the key to Cuba's new tourism push isn't luxury but ecology. In the last of our recent series on Cuba's new Green Revolution, Martha Honey filed this report.

(Surf and muted conversation)

HONEY: A long, raised wooden walkway leads from the surf through the mangrove swamp on Cayo Levisa, a tiny windswept island off Cuba's northeastern coast. It's surrounded by one of Cuba's best coral reefs, but until recently it was inaccessible to tourists. Now some are starting to arrive, staying at the recently built hotel.

(A band plays salsa)

HONEY: The path ends at the small hotel on the edge of a gentle white sand beach. Over a lunch of freshly caught red snapper, the hotel manager, George Medina, uses his smattering of English to explain that the walkway was designed to minimize the environmental impact of tourism.

MEDINA: It was intentional, because it is very natural for the conservation of nature. And we're ready to develop eco-tourism.

(Applause; the performers say "Gracias!")

HONEY: Eco-tourism is the new buzzword in Cuba and throughout the travel industry. But Cubans are carefully planning their tourism expansion to minimize environmental damage. Gisela Alonso is director of Cuba's Academy of Sciences.

ALONZO: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: We don't want to have the problems of the Mediterranean and Cancun. It must not be done in a disorderly way. So we have a National Commission on Eco-Tourism made up of tourism, scientific, and environmental members. We analyze the hotel capacity, the number of tourists we can receive in those areas so that we have the least effect possible on these tourism areas.

HONEY: Alonso explains that academy scientists do environmental impact studies on all new tourist projects. For instance, before the hotel at Cayo Levisa was built, scientists surveyed the island and recommended the raised walkway, and appropriate size and construction materials for the hotel.

(Birdsong and motor vehicles)

HONEY: Cuba's newest and most innovative eco-tourist project is at the community of Las Terrazas in the rolling hills of Pinar del Rio Province. It's next to a rainforest which the United Nations has named Cuba's first biosphere reserve.

(Birdsong and waterfall)

HONEY: A tiny waterfall runs through the lobby of the new hotel. Birds nest in the large trees which shoot up through the roof. No trees were cut or hills leveled. Instead, the rambling Spanish-style hotel follows the contour of the land. And eventually, much of the hotel's electricity will be generated by solar panels.

(Ambient conversation amidst the birdsong)

HONEY: More than anyone else in Cuba, the community of Las Terrazas in this hotel are the dream of Osmani Cuenfuegos, Cuba's Minister of Tourism. He is also an architect, conservationist, and part of Castro's inner circle.

CIENFUEGOS: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: We are not going into eco-tourism because it is trendy. We're going into it because of our principles and our concern with protecting nature. The idea is that the tourists and the community together participate in all this. We think that the tourists will like that, and that it will help the community.

(More ambient conversation)

HONEY: At a meeting, community members and scientists explain that the eco-tourism project is a natural complement to their work reforesting the area around the reserve, and that the revenue will directly benefit the town.

WOMAN: [Speaks in Spanish]
TRANSLATOR: The profits from this little tourism project will go to supporting the community's schools and the day care centers. It's not essential, but it's a supplement to our other activities within the bio reserve.

(Children speaking)

HONEY: Arnie Coro is a radio journalist and environmentalist who has long been involved in the Las Terrazas project. He says this project is an important model because the profits remain here. They are not absorbed into the central government's coffers. And, Coro says, eco-tourism is also having a positive impact on the next generation.

CORO: For example, children in that school are now aware of what bird-watching is all about. And that puts them quite ahead of a standard Cuban primary school kid.

HONEY: Cuban officials say a major factor in the success of their eco-tourism plans will be US policy. They say they need the US to lift the travel ban and allow Americans to come here. But while they point the finger outside, there are internal obstacles to success as well.

(Sounds of traffic)

HONEY: For the last 30 years everything in Cuba has been run from here, Havana, by the central government's cumbersome bureaucracy. Although the government now allows tourists to travel freely throughout the island, in reality it's very difficult. There is a lack of transportation and food. Government tour agencies remain geared to handling large package tours to beach resorts. And while they're carefully monitoring the environmental impact of all tourism projects, Cuba is still developing old-style, large-scale tourist resorts, some with the help of foreign investors. Such hotels have become magnets for prostitutes, beggars, and black marketers: problems Cuba had virtually eliminated since the Revolution. But now, like its people, the government needs every dollar it can get. So large package tourism will continue to coexist alongside its healthier cousin, eco-tourism. Marc Frank is an American economist who lives in Havana.

FRANK: In general, I think Cuba's very serious about ecology, very serious about protecting the natural environment. I think that that's not in any way a hoax. At the same time, Cuba does need to develop mass tourism, with all its negative impact, and the best they can do is try to make it as healthy as possible, but they can't stop its development because they need it in order to survive.

HONEY: Despite problems, Cuba's tourism push is helping the country survive and preserve the social programs which are the backbone of the Revolution. Tourism is up 25% since 1993, and Cuba is gaining recognition within the international tourism industry for its environmental innovations. But the success of its eco-tourism effort may ultimately hinge on Washington. On whether political changes there will allow Cuba to tap its strongest natural market for environmentally conscious travelers: the US. For Living on Earth, I'm Martha Honey.



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