World Wildlife Fund Canada
Transat supports World Wildlife Fund Canada’s development of an environmental management program in Cuba
Every year, Cuba welcomes some two million visitors, most of them from Canada and Europe. While the country is popular for its white sand beaches – there are more than 300 in the archipelago, including the famous 22-kilometre-long expanse at Varadero – and its average of 330 days of sunshine per year, Cuba is also renowned for its exceptional biodiversity. Its ecosystems are among the richest and best preserved in the Caribbean. Cuba boasts more than 84 protected areas, making up almost 14% of the lands and 16% of the shelf, along with six UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. Its flora is abundant and varied; it is estimated that the 110,992-square-kilometre archipelago contains almost 4% of all the world’s plant life.
Tourism, a major component of the economy that generates annual spinoffs of over $2 billion, continues to grow. But this development also has impacts – a situation to which the Cuban government is very sensitive. It has implemented significant measures to strengthen policies aimed at managing tourism development while enhancing protection of the environment and resources. Actions in this area are ongoing.
World Wildlife Fund Canada (WWF-Canada), a worldwide conservation organization that has been active in Canada since 1967, has been working in Cuba for more than two decades to protect not only the island’s ecosystems, but those all over the Caribbean. WWF-Canada is currently laying the groundwork for an ambitious environmental management program linked to tourism, in close collaboration with the Cuban government and the Antonio Nuñez Jimenez Foundation of Man and Nature, a local non-governmental organization. Cuba is among the most important sun destinations served by Transat, which is one of the largest tour operators in the country. Thus it was natural for Transat to partner with WWF-Canada in this project.
The program, dubbed Greening Cuban Tourism, will initially last three years, and its first goal is to establish indicators that will be used to gauge the repercussions of tourism activities and to support sustainable development that takes into account the limits and the potential of given regions. The indicators – ranging from the maximum capacity of sites to consumption of resources (e.g., energy, drinking water) to degrees of cooperation with government authorities – will be established according to the specific characteristics of individual tourism sites, and subsequently validated in terms of their performance. The initiative could ultimately lead to an updating of Cuba’s sustainable tourism policy.
Four sites with differing ecosystems have been selected for a pilot project, and WWF-Canada is facilitating a series of workshops and local consulting efforts. They are a sector of the beach at Varadero, along with three sites that tourists can visit on day trips: the Viñales Valley, and two Biosphere Reserves, Sierra del Rosario where is located the tourism complex Las Terrazas, and the Ciénaga de Zapata.
The Zapata peninsula is worthy of special attention. It is home to one of Cuba’s most important ecosystems, and the largest expanse of wetlands of any Caribbean island – which gives its name both to the Biosphere Reserve and the Parque National Ciénaga de Zapata (Zapata Wetlands National Park). Its plant and animal species are richly diverse and very well protected. Hundreds of different species of mammals, birds, reptiles – including the Cuban crocodile – and amphibians live here, along with some 900 species of indigenous plants. Nearby is the Bay of Pigs, which played a major role in recent Cuban history. The region is especially well loved by divers, for its clear waters and spectacular undersea life.
“The four sites were selected because of the diversity of their features,” says WWF-Canada’s Regional Director for the Greater Antilles, Michael Bliemsrieder. “The beach at Varadero is famous as Cuba’s most intensively developed tourist site, which makes applying a sustainable tourism policy all the more complex. At the other end of the scale, the Ciénaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve does not have particularly well developed tourism infrastructures, and is home to a unique ecosystem, which makes it an ideal site for environmental protection efforts. So we are aiming quite high, and our program is generating a lot of enthusiasm, on the part of the Minister of Tourism as well as the local communities and university researchers who have joined forces with us.”
In the second stage of the program, awareness and conservation actions will be implemented. In the less well developed areas, this could mean the creation of parks and walking trails, which would contribute to the growth of ecotourism, among other benefits. In the busier areas, efforts could include promoting greater awareness among hotels and other tourism industry stakeholders of the need to adopt improved preservation measures. Learning activities could be conducted in industries ranging from fishing to construction. The final stages will include implementation of larger-scale projects, and initiatives aimed at raising tourists’ awareness of sustainable tourism principles.
Greening Cuban Tourism is just one of many WWF-Canada projects in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean. While Canadian environmental conservation expertise is being welcomed in the island nation, Canada also has much to learn in return, as Cuba is currently the only country in the world to comply with WWF criteria for sustainable development. Already renowned across the globe for the beauty of its beaches, the vibrancy of its culture and the warm welcome of its people, Cuba can now, thanks to projects like Greening Cuban Tourism, build on sustainability and ecotourism to diversify its tourism offer.
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