Cuba’s protected landscapes and the challenges for sustainable tourism

After a recent gathering of experts in Santiago de Cuba took place to discuss the future of Cuba’s cultural landscapes and cityscapes, their protection and strategies for sustainable tourism; many questions remain as to the future of Cuba’s protected natural riches in the face of a projected increase of foreign tourists. On this post, we look at a few of Cuba’s natural landscapes, all which have recently been drawing the attention of more and more visitors due to their pristine state and beauty.

Cuba’s protected landscapes and the challenges for sustainable tourism

The candid, somewhat battered beauty of the previously isolated, formerly off-limits (for Americans), mystifying, controversial and puzzling Cuba, is now at the reach of U.S. travellers, most of which are suddenly free to unravel some of its mysteries. And everyone’s taking notice. European visitors, who dominated the island’s tourism market for decades, are indeed seeing the change and commenting on the previously unseen crowds of curious American wanderers. There is fear of Americanisation, and not completely unfounded given that a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group predicted travel to Cuba to increase sevenfold by 2015! Cuba needs to keep up with the pace of projected demand and expand accommodation options, but it also needs to step up its conservation efforts in the face of such a dramatic upsurge in visitor numbers.

To this end, last month, Cuba held the 2nd “Encuentro de Expertos sobre Paisajes Culturales” (Experts Meeting on Cultural Landscapes) on the city of Santiago de Cuba, under the theme “Identification and Safekeeping Strategies”. Over four days, the expert panel discussed the preservation of Cuba’s cultural heritage, both in the form of colonial cities and wild natural reserves, while looking at finding new ways to minimise tourism’s negative impact on the country’s most valued assets. Such meeting comes at a critical time, when Cuba’s already fragile infrastructure and protected natural areas could be further damaged by mass tourism getting a little too out of hand.

Now, more than ever, Cuba has to look at ways of minimising the increasing tourism impact at some of its key attractions, partly to avoid damage to fragile biodiversity, and partly, as is the case with colonial cities and their historic centres, to avoid the loss of charm, authenticity and exotic feel. This is posing a bigger challenge than ever as the island welcomed a record-breaking 4.2 million tourist arrivals last year, a 13 per cent increase on 2015’s figures, with the expectation being that this year tourism numbers will further grow by 4 per cent. How to do deal with this enormous challenge?

The choice should not be to refrain from visiting Cuba, but rather to look at the way your visit to the island could positively or negatively impact on the local economy, the natural beach enclaves and improve the life standards of locals. In an attempt to try and spin some tourism negatives into positives, there are measures tourists can take and some others that the Cuban government will try and implement. After all that’s what responsible tourism is for, to help countries like Cuba who desperately need tourism to keep its economy afloat, but not at the cost of ruining its untouched enchantment or exploiting its hard-working inhabitants.

Now let’s take a look at some of Cuba’s emerging natural attractions (some already popular, others just gearing up to be) and see how they’ve been affected by tourism in the last couple of years, how they’re dealing with the and how they’re planning ahead for the future.

Vinales Valley – once off the beaten path, now featuring in most tourist guides

This increasingly popular tourist attraction was little known to foreign tourists a little over a decade ago. Locals knew it well as the first UNESCO-listed cultural landscape in all of the Americas (it earned the title in 1999) and at the time there was very little tourism infrastructure in place to welcome visitors. Even now, hotel rooms numbers remain limited (there’s only three state-owned hotels) but rooms at "casas particulares" have spawned at incredible speed, drawing concern about the sustainability of such an oversupply of lodging options within such a small geographical area (two-hour long queues at "Cueva del Indio" have now become commonplace on peak tourism season).

Despite photographs of the valley giving the sensation of vast green plains littered by “mogotes” stretching as far the eye can see, Vinales is a very small town, and as such very fragile and susceptible to overcrowding. To add to the fire, numerous prestigious international publications have written recommendations on visiting it, some like the New York Times, have included it twice on their list of places to see, and readers have been indeed taking up on their advice.

How to contain such growing interest among visitors? Well, no one wants interest on one of Cuba’s most rare natural gems to wane, what is needed is to limit the amount of visitors touring the area’s attractions at any one time for the benefit of visitors themselves, as I’m sure no one wants to wait in line for more than hours. How to do this?

Well, the reality today is that private businesses have spiralled out of control after the Cuban government eased up on the rules to set up private enterprises and let out homes, flats and apartments to tourists. Taking advantage of legal loopholes, lack of control and cracks in the system, locals have spruced up rooms and converted homes to welcome visitors, adversely impacting on protected heritage. Towners benefit massively, of course, and this is one of the points of sustainable tourism, to give back to locals, but not at the cost of uncontrolled overdevelopment.

Currently there are 200 rooms up for rent, offered privately at locals’ homes functioning as guesthouses (owners typically let out between one and two double rooms with ensuite bathroom), as well as over 70 private restaurants or "paladares", signalling to an oversupply for a town this size.

It is here that once again, the government must step in to stop to more rooms springing and put rules in place limiting the number of visitors allowed at any one time in the valley, perhaps similar to what Barcelona and Venice are trying to do in order to curb the influx of tourists. It’s not just about those who stay over and enjoy the rustic rural charm for a few days though, it’s also about the many who visit daily on organised half-day tours or full-day trips without spending the night. They too, significantly add to the crowds in some of the valley’s attractions.

Another topic of concern in Vinales is its extremely vulnerable architecture, which is slowly disappearing, not only due to the adverse effects of the tourism industry, but mainly for the lack of materials (wood and guano) to upkeep, repair and maintain these basic yet enchanting constructions. It’s one of the area’s most singular attractions, yet the revenue from tourism hasn’t made its way to repairing or safekeeping these humble gems.

On the other hand, a number of other variables pose a menace to Vinales’ cultural landscapes - and other similar popular attractions in Cuba – and they include the loss of identity, infrastructural problems, the uncontrolled building of new edifications, and the transformation of some buildings to cater for the incoming tourist arrivals (there’s a tobacco that from day to night transforms into a paladar!).

More needs to be done in Vinales, and it’s about more than carbon footprint.

Taking a step forward to salvage the valley’s still pristine beauty and authenticity is a new project backed by UNESCO and supported by other organisations, which will soon be launched in Vinales, inviting all local and national players in the tourism industry (both private entrepreneurs and state companies) to sit down and exchange ideas towards the protection of this little village. The ultimate goal is to find ways of working together towards implementing a sustainable community programme to protect the Vinales Valley against future development. Even when this is not a solution to the current problems, they are the right steps in the right direction.

Desembarco del Granma National Park – untouched nature at its best and purest

Where Vinales feels its territory has been overexposed and overexploited, the "Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma” surprises itself with the arrival of every new tourist. It finds itself way off the beaten path, miles and miles away from centric locations surrounding the capital or other popular tourist enclaves such as Varadero, Trinidad or Cienfuegos. It sits on the opposite end of the island, right at its very tip, and though it’s geographically closer to Holguin and its popular Guardalavaca beach resort, than most other eastern hotspots (including Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa), it’s not close enough so that most tourists would contemplate a visit to a place that’s nearly a five-hour ride away. Why is it so important then? Why does it deserve mentioning? And why then, if it’s so remote, am I red-flagging it as highly vulnerable to tourism?

Cocooned amidst imposing, naturally occurring uplitfed limestone terraces (which earned the park a spot in the UNESCO World Heritage list) this protected natural enclave is home to extremely rare endemic fauna, and even more striking flora. Its awe-inspiring karst topography is a remarkable example of geomorphologic and physiographic features, most of which are unique in the world. Its singular marine terraces, lying on a bed of limestone rocks are the largest, best preserved in the world. Its pristine ecosystem is bursting with life, with the area being subject to ongoing geological processes. "Desembarco del Granma’s" hardly trodden landscapes and seascapes have remained undisturbed for decades, and as such, it boasts an ample variety of karst phenomena, from canyon and caves to scenic cliffs, dramatic waterfalls and giant sinkholes remained. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind.

It’s a site that hasn’t quite been discovered. Yet. But with the increasing popularity of previously hidden gems like Baracoa (often described as a world of its own) and hiking trips to the Sierra Maestra mountain range (Cuba’s highest and most extensive, home to the island’s tallest peak – "El Pico Turquino", which can be climbed on organised excursions), becoming more and more on demand after the region was bestowed a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence, "Desembarco del Granma" is indeed gearing up to a potential (and significant) surge in visitor numbers. It lies adjacent to the Sierra Maestra and as the easternmost part of Cuba continues to develop, it won’t be long until new routes are established and regular tours to the park organised.

And there’s one recent event that will draw even more crowds to this area. Cuba’s annual international tourism fair, FitCuba 2017 was hosted in the town of Gibara, Holguin, this year, and as such it was dedicated to showcasing some less-trodden, yet highly attractive rural and natural landscapes, as well as charming colonial cities that time forgot. Gibara and Baracoa.

As one of Cuba’s most immaculately preserved biosphere reserves, UNESCO declared Desembarco del Granama a protected Heritage Site in 1999, and since then various programmes have been put in place for the conservation of its rich biodiversity.

The park’s “Plan de Manejo” (Handling Plan) comprises various conservation programmes, ranging from the mitigation of the main threat to its ecosystem (dry spells and hurricanes) to the handling of resources (with an ongoing restoration of ecosystems for over eight years now), to the constant monitoring of the park to continuous investigation and research, such as the reintroduction of the American crocodile, one of the few places in Cuba where they are being brought back to their original habitat.

But the most important thing concerning Desembarco del Granma National Park is to guarantee an integral conservational state of its natural values, its cultural and historical landscapes and its untouched heritage. The park might not be much affected by tourism today, but it won´t be kept a secret for too long, especially when the surrounding area is developed to its full potential.

Underground marvels – Matanzas’ miraculous caves

If there´s a place in Cuba where you can get to see just how fragile and vulnerable a cultural landscape can be, that´s Matanzas, with its rich underworld of wonderfully preserved caves, and where; a gust of wind could literally demolish centuries´ worth of astounding geological formations, or where the heat emanating from six humans could lead to irreversible damage.

The geological formations at Matanzas´ now famous underground caves are unique in the world and the likes of it simply can´t be found anywhere else, with twisty elongated shapes that defy gravity and even imagination. Sometimes they look like gigantic lamps, others as fine as hairs that may break with the slightest breeze, some say they can picture flowers, snow-topped pine forests, huge crystals and enormous rock columns… The beauty and the variety of naturally occurring formations here is quite mesmerising, and quite unbelievable too.

We´re talking about historically significant caves that date as back far in time as 300,000 years (at least and which were once frequented by Cuba´s first ever inhabitants, and we´re not just talking about the native "Tainos" who peacefully dwelled here before the Spanish conquistadors enslaved them and eventually wiped them out, we actually mean the prehistoric era. Prehistoric wall paintings on some of the caves are a testament to that, as are the fossils and tools that have been found here.

Famous for officially claiming the title of Cuba´s oldest tourism attraction, these caves have been open to visitors since their discovery in the late 1800s, with the oldest of these being the lesser-known "Cueva de la Campana", the first to open to the public to much local acclaim. The larger, more popular, more visually stunning and strikingly beautiful Cuevas de Bellamar followed shortly after and are the island´s number one speleological attraction since its accidental discovery in 1861.

Tourists lured by the popular beauty of Varadero’s paradisiacal beach, had largely ignored these spelunk marvels for some time. But nowadays more and more curious visitors are lining up to admire this incredible feat of nature at a very accessible price (entrance costs 10 CUC) and any increase in the daily number of crowds is potentially damaging to this delicate ecosystem. What to do then?

In the face of the unique threats and to diminish the chance of irreversible damage, there are a variety of measures in place to ensure the cave’s pristine condition and longevity. One of these is that no one may enter the cave without a guide and only small groups are allowed at any one time.

The even more astounding Caverna de Santa Catalina (Santa Catalina Cavern) is a fiercely protected area (declared a National Monument in 1996) home to the only sand and calcite stalagmites known in the world and whose unique shapes resemble mushrooms. There’s also bell-shaped stalactites found in a good state of conservation. In the cavern’s protected area numerous evidences point to the presence of aboriginal life since 1200 BC. The only complete fossil skeleton to be found in Cuba was discovered here, along with over 500 cave drawings in carbon.

To protect the Santa Calina marvel, different levels of access have been created, including totally restricted and cordoned off areas, strictly off-limits to visitors due to their fragility. Perhaps in the future parts of the Bellamar Cave will have to close off to the public, but in the meantime, as long as strict measures are followed and reduced number of visitors allowed at limited times only, the public should enjoy them for many more years to come.

Santiago de Cuba: a diverse Paradise chock-full of cultural landscapes

Santiago de Cuba is the only city in the Caribbean boasting three different components of the World Heritage list. Two of these stand out most significantly, classed as Cultural Landscapes: the old coffee plantations and the defensive colonial system, with the imposing Morro as its main stronghold.

Widely regarded as the capital of the Caribbean (and also known as Cuba’s most Caribbean city), this old colonial village has no less than six varied cultural landscapes that include, on top of the two mentioned earlier; the Cementerio Patrimonial Santa Ifigenia (Cemetery of St. Ifigenia), the Historic Centre and the intangible fact of it having been the backdrop of Cuba’s Independence Wars against the Spanish colony.
Specialists in the conservation of Santiago de Cuba’s heritage are currently working hard to include three of these landscapes in UNESCO’s list so that the city receives long-due recognition for its material and immaterial riches.

But the journey there has been long and arduous, not least of all due to the step backs and destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, with special damage to architectural heritage.

Nevertheless, for some years now the Office of the City’s Conservationist has kept pushing onwards to earn the city and its heritage the recognition it deserves. A fruitful result of his endeavours was the fact that the “Parque Arqueologico del Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Subacuatico Batalla Naval de Santiago de Cuba” (long name, I know) dating back to 1898 was bestowed the prestigious title of National Monument in 2015.

Another example of how Santiago de Cuba is working on the issue of raising attention to the city’s cultural landscapes is the launch of projects like the “Los Caminos del Cafe”, which aims to rescue the value of coffee tours at the old Fraternidad hacienda.

Financed by the European Union, Fundacion Malongo and OCC; thanks to this collaboration project, an old building was restored and converted into the Casa Dranguet, which now works on further developing tourism attractions such as a new eco-archaeological park within a pristine natural area.

The best way forward – how can Cuba preserve the state of its heritage riches?

The touristic value of Cuba’s cultural landscapes is undeniable. It ranges from archaeological treasures to thriving nature, from the island’s history-rich past to its religions and underground caves. They all make for unforgettable experiences and colourful cultural immersions, but we must take care to protect them at the same time we showcase them.

While many places in Cuba high on the tourist radar, are lucky to have institutions like offices of the historian or office of the city’s curator to look after their heritage, there are many other, less trodden and far less lucky places that are not as protected or that lack dedicated specialists to study the impact of tourism and create preventative measures.

Many parts of Cuba need better regulation and control when it comes to the building of new constructions or the transformation of existing ones, given that part of the value of cultural landscapes is precisely the uniqueness of autochthonous architecture, a large part of which is disappearing at a fast pace for many reasons, the main one of them being the lack of the necessary supplies and tools. It’s not about mummifying urban centres either, it’s about stopping heritage being destroyed and trying to search for alternatives that meet us somewhere half way.

The challenges of protecting and safekeeping historic centres can be seen in Cuba today more than ever, as the drastic increase in tourism numbers has given way to the flourishing of many businesses overnight, backed by foreign capital and propagating everywhere, taking advantage of the cracks in the systems and the inefficiencies of regulators, to sometimes adversely impact on the heritage, destroying authentic architectural or cultural jewels in the process.

In the midst of shortages and shortcomings, of grey areas or unfinished undefined ones, there’s also lack of education of the masses, including locals; as we mustn’t forget that within these cultural landscapes are the lives of real people. It’s about changing the way of thinking of locals towards their surrounding environment and prioritising their understanding of the importance of preserving heritage, the one thing that gives value to any city and the one thing that will keep attracting tourists for many years to come.

Las Terrazas – a leading experiment in sustainable eco-tourism

A living success of creating sustainable tourism while placing the utmost care in protecting the environment can be seen at Las Terrazas, a pioneering environmental project that’s Cuba’s greenest leading example.

This small community in Pinar del Rio was founded as part of a Green Revolution led by Castro in the late 60s. After a reforestation project was carried out in the area it became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and the people that worked so hard in bringing the area back to life, ended up setting camp here and permanently staying to protect it and keep giving back to it. To attract tourists and engage them in their project they added tours, such as a canopy zip-line excursion, hiking and trekking trails, birdwatching, pottery workshops and visits to Cuba’s oldest coffee plantations.

There is only one hotel here, built in the eco-friendliest way possible and particularly striking for the giant tree that shoots straight up from the lobby, going right through it. Hotel Moka brings the outdoors in adding authenticity and enchantment for a memorable stay. Here guests take a dip in the adjacent lake, tour the organic farms and dig into the fresh local produce. Let’s just hope more vulnerable places in Cuba take a leaf (quite literally) from Las Terrazas’ green book. 

Susana Corona

Susana Corona

The islands' go-between

Having lived most of my life between Cuba and the UK and being half-raised in both island nations, I...

110 Articles

Related blog posts in Little known Cuba