Patricia Grogg* – Tierramérica
HAVANA TIMES, Oct 1 (IPS) – The Zapata wren (Ferminia cerverai) is known in Cuba as the “soprano of the forest” for its lovely song. But this tiny bird is very timid and, at the slightest sound, will hide in the vegetation in the Cienaga de Zapata – Zapata Swamp – 160 km south of Havana on the island’s south-central coast.
To see and hear the little bird that is endemic to the swamp – the largest and best-preserved Caribbean island wetlands – is often a goal of visitors to this area, which so far is relatively unexplored by foreign tourists, who usually come for sun and beach vacations.
But tourism officials have decided to open the doors to travellers who are seeking something more than a good tan.
“We have four well-appointed hotels for nature-loving tourists, interested in hiking, bird-watching, diving or sport fishing,” Estanislao Rodríguez, commercial director of the tourist outfitter Cubanacán in the Cienaga, told Tierramérica.
This vast and sparsely populated municipality on the southern coast of Matanzas province is home to no less than 65 percent of Cuba’s bird species, 1,000 plant species and native amphibians, like the highly endangered Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer), only found in the Cienaga and Cuba’s Isla (island) de la Juventud.
From late November to March, at the environmental station of Las Salinas it is possible to see 65 migratory bird species escaping the cold winter temperatures in Canada and the United States.
The Cienaga, declared a biosphere reserve in 2000 and a protected wetland site under the international Ramsar convention in 2001, has a diversity of ecosystems, including swamps, rivers, lagoons, grasslands, mangroves, semi-deciduous, evergreen and sub-coastal forests, coral reefs and caves.
The area is visited by 100,000 tourists a year. An advertising campaign is under way to bring in more visitors, primarily from Europe, which still has a strong demand for specialised travel.
The long-anticipated opening of travel from the United States, which is still subject to the 47-year-old embargo that prevents U.S. citizens from freely visiting Cuba, could drive up demand for ecotourism, and bring with it potentially dangerous impacts on the wetlands.
Diversifying Options with Nature Tourism
As for that possibility, Cuba’s Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero told Tierramérica that the bulk of tourists “have to go to the beaches.” The development of ecotourism to which Cuba aspires will be based on maximum numbers of visitors established for each site, he added.
It is increasingly necessary to diversify Cuba’s products, and nature tourism provides one such opportunity, but it will be done in a “sustainable” way, said Marrero at an international meeting aimed at promoting the Cienaga de Zapata as a travel destination.
Pablo Bouza, director of the Cienaga de Zapata National Park, which extends over almost the wetlands area of 600,000 square km, also told Tierramérica that steps have been taken to ensure that tourism here “is not massive, but sustainable.”
“Since we decided to make public use of these protected areas, their capacity for nature tourism has been studied… There are instruments for measuring the effectiveness of management for each activity, with evaluations carried out twice a year,” he explained.
By way of example, Bouza cited the case of hiking in the wetlands’ lagoon and cave system, where only three of a total of 90 flooded caverns will be open to visitors. Furthermore, on each visit, no more than seven people can enter, with a maximum of 15 people a day.
Officials also have faith in the close relationship between the tourism industry and the government agencies for environmental protection.
Research studies propose the adoption of legislation to oversee compliance with existing regulations, better coordination of all sectors involved in tourism, and financial support to implement sustainable management and newer “green” technologies.
Twenty-two percent of Cuban territory is under some category of environmental protection, based on the value of its biodiversity. Along with the Cienaga de Zapata, other standouts are the biosphere reserves in Guanahacabibes and Sierra del Rosario, in the western province of Pinar del Río.
There are also biosphere reserves in Buenavista, in the Jardines del Rey archipelago, off of central Cuba, and in Baconao and Cuchillas del Toa in the east. But despite Cuba’s great natural riches, the environmental component represents just four percent of the island’s tourism, which expects to bring in 2.36 million visitors this year.
(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)