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Cuba: Eco-tourism is the future

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BOCA DE GUAMA, Cuba — Crocodile 0383 is too tiny to be menacing.

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BOCA DE GUAMA, Cuba — Crocodile 0383 is too tiny to be menacing.

Three weeks old and barely the length of a candy bar, the gray and brownish-yellow beast already has all 64 jagged teeth, which glint like crushed glass in the tropical sun. Yet his bites don’t break the skin and a whipping from his Q-tip-sized tail only tickles.

Though small, Cuba sees big potential in No. 0383, hoping he and thousands of other natural wonders can revolutionize a nascent eco-tourism industry.

Amid dipping tourism revenues, the government gathered top leaders from its state-run vacation industry and European and Canadian tour operators this week for a conference aimed at boosting a segment of the market that only accounts for 4 percent of all foreign visits, according to deputy Tourism Minister Alexis Trujillo.

“We will always be a sun and sand destination,” he said. “But we want to diversify. Eco-tourism is the future.”

Trujillo expects Cuba to attract nearly 3 percent more total overseas tourists than last year’s record 2.35 million, but said that price cuts to keep demand high amid the global recession means overall revenues will fail to meet the $2.5 billion generated in 2008.

Cuba is betting environmentally conscious vacationers, who are often willing to pay premium prices and stay longer than those hankering for cheap beach getaways, can boost profits. Eco-tourists focus not only on nature — biking, hiking, bird-watching, scuba-diving — but also on the country’s social and cultural charms, while trying to make as little negative impact as possible on nature.

“There’s enough to see and do that’s green. It can get tourists coming and keep them coming,” said a U.S.-based tour operator who has visited the island four times but asked not to be named because of possible repercussions from the U.S. Treasury Department, which enforces Washington’s 47-year-old trade embargo. American tourists are effectively barred from traveling to Cuba, though many ignore the rules.

“When the embargo is dropped and there are more U.S. tourists,” she said, “Eco-tourism could be a boon. But it needs to be managed very carefully.”

A key attraction will be the national park near the Bay of Pigs where this week’s conference was held — the Cienaga de Zapata, or Zapata Swamp. Cuba’s equivalent of the Florida Everglades, it’s the Caribbean’s largest bioreserve, 1.5 million acres of mangrove-choked canals teeming with the wildest Cuban wildlife.

Just 125 miles southeast of Havana, it features more than 1.5 million acres and 354 species of birds — from pink flamingos to the bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird — plus 130 varieties of plants, dozens of which are found nowhere else on earth. The Boca de Guama crocodile farm that’s home to No. 0383 and about 4,300 other Rhombifers, or Cuban crocodiles, is also a top tourist draw — though there are so many crocs that officials simply give them identification numbers rather than names.

Constanze Walsdorf, a saleswoman for Aventura Tours in Freiburg, Germany, which offers about 15 environmentally friendly trips to Cuba, said business has remained brisk despite Europe’s moribund economy.

“There’s a lot of interest,” she said, “and it’s growing.”

Cuba ranks among the world leaders in low greenhouse-gas emissions, but not necessarily by choice. Government restrictions on vehicles ensure that horse-drawn buggies outnumber cars in all but the largest cities. Heavy industry is so inefficient under state control that even though most factories rely on high-polluting, Soviet-era machinery, their output is low and the environmental impact reduced.

A narrow highway runs alongside the marshes and is flanked by monuments to Cubans killed during the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.

Almost no Cubans live in Zapata, but there are tourist hotels, including bungalows perched on tiny islands in the wetlands. Speedboats take visitors through densely forested canals and lagoons where eagles glide overhead — but the vessels leave a layer of oil runoff on the water.

Still, officials will cap group sizes so that hiking expeditions and other activities don’t overwhelm the nature they come to see. Parts of the national park will remain off-limits entirely for their own protection.

Back at the crocodile farm, all the reptiles are separated by size and kept in crowded concrete pens — breeding is the top priority, not constructing an idyllic spot for tourists. The largest lay with their mouths agape to cool themselves, so still that they look like scaly statutes except for haunting yellow eyes that follow visitors hungrily.

When trainers toss in fish heads and crab legs at feeding time, the resulting frenzy is so violent that any injury drawing blood can prompt the pack to turn on one of its own. Crocs that bite down but don’t capture any food in their jaws produce a spooky popping sound — a hollow puckering that sounds practically prehistoric.

Crocodiles can live to 80, said farm director Andres Arencibia. Females lay up to 35 eggs per year with three-quarters of those born in captivity reaching adulthood. In the wild, only 15 percent survive, beset by predators, disease and cannibalism.

Crocodile breeding began in 1962, when the animals were endangered. Now, about 6,000 live in the swamps around the farm, and about 300 adults are released into the wild from it each year, Arencibia said.

Holding up a wiggling and writhing No. 0383, he smiled when the pointy-toothed tike emitted a crow-like squawk.

“Give him some months,” Arencibia said, “and his bite could take my fingers off.”

Cuba hopes its eco-tourism industry will grow just as fast.

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