Travel to Cuba is so new for Americans that many are unaware the island has some of the most beautiful beaches and waters in the Caribbean. Americans can not visit the country as tourists, so making plans to wander the beautiful coastline is not even on their radar screen. YET. Even though the door for travel has been opened, US citizens must still fit into one of the twelve designated categories laid out, and sunbathing snorkeler is not one of them. The biggest worry of environmentalists is what will happen when that changes. Can the impact be sustainable or will it destroy the culture and coral reefs of Cuba?
Cuba occupies an interesting junction of the Atlantic, Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. About 70 miles off the southern coast is a group of hundreds of small, undeveloped islands edged with red mangroves and white sandy beaches. This pristine habitat, the Jardines de la Reina-Queen’s Garden-is today considered one of the healthiest coral reef habitats in the world. Encompassing over 1,000 square miles the health of this pristine ecosystem is interconnected to the rest of the Caribbean. The current from this area travels north and as an experiment in 1991 proved, flotilla released from this area can reach the Palm Beaches in just 46 days. The health of the Queen’s Garden will affect much of the surrounding area. The offspring and larvae from this marine environment travel on the ocean currents throughout the area.
Twenty years ago, the Jardines de la Reina was in terrible shape. Trawlers had over fished the area and the reef was almost devoid of wildlife and healthy coral. Biodiversity was practically non-existant. In 1997 the Cuban government banned commercial fishing and created one of the largest marine parks in the Caribbean. The fact that there was very little boat traffic and thus very little of the pollution it creates, added to the reef’s healthy recovery. Fewer than 3,000 divers visit the garden every year. Catch and release fishing is limited to a few hundred.
But alas, all is not good news. More than once I heard the word tsunami spoken when officials, architects or city planners talked about the coming changes. Now that U.S. and Cuban relations are thawing, the result could be a “tourism tsunami,” the Miami Herald reported. I’ve never known a tsunami to be a good thing. Cruise ships are indicating a large increase in bookings by Americans. People-to-People programs on board are providing the ‘educational’ opportunity for tourists to visit up to four different ports aboard the vessels. In addition, to meet farming needs, I wonder how much of the land will be developed for agriculture, increasing the possibility of runoff from pesticides and fertilizer.
I can’t tell you how hard it was to be sitting on a bus, watching the ocean pass by when visiting Cuba; we were not ‘allowed’ to stop. It is even harder for me to imagine that this will last much longer. Unmanaged development, tourism and fishing have had a devastating effects on other coral reefs around the world. Hotels are clamoring to build new resorts and take part in the infrastructure that is taking Cuba by storm. US senators from both sides of the divide were visiting during the same time I was, each angling for what their state could receive out of the new trade arrangements. One thing everyone I spoke with agrees on-Now that the doors are open, there is no turning back. The tsunami is coming. Tourism will provide an opportunity to improve lives in Cuba. Will sustainability be apart of the equation? How growth is handled and managed will determine what cost to the environment and Cuba’s pristine reefs the tourism tsunami will have.