Environmentalists fear tourism, development will threaten Cuba's
pristine coral reefs
Environmental activists fear that business opportunity comes with a price.
BY PAUL GUZZO
Tampa Bay Times
Cuba's surging tourism industry presents an economic opportunity for
American and Cuban interests now that diplomatic relations have been
restored. The island nation needs new hotels and new infrastructure to
support a tourism boom. The United States can provide the materials,
capital and know-how that Cuban tourism needs to flourish.
But environmental activists fear that business opportunity comes with a
price: overdevelopment along Cuba's shores could endanger its pristine
Those reefs, experts believe, may hold the key to reviving the dying
reefs of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.
"The irony is the U.S. may be more of a threat to Cuba as a friend than
as an enemy," said David Guggenheim, president of Ocean Doctor, a joint
research project with Cuban scientists. "I believe that based on what's
happened in the Caribbean over the past 50 years."
Guggenheim said studies have shown that since 1970, half of the coral
reefs in Caribbean waters have died, which includes the southern end of
the Gulf of Mexico.
One culprit is overdevelopment of the coastlines in those waters, either
by U.S. investors or to satisfy American tourism needs.
Cuba's coral reefs remain in a near pristine state – ironically –
because development was blocked by decades of isolation from the United
Coral reefs are a valuable part of the ecosystem because they reduce
wave energy from storms and are home to more than 4,000 species of fish
and countless species of plants.
But Cuba may hold the key to repairing the region's reefs: Marine
biologists hope that, over time, larvae from Cuba's reefs will spread
and repopulate the Caribbean.
Tampa's Florida Aquarium is working with Havana's National Aquarium on
ways to regrow Cuba's coral on other coastlines.
In the meantime, experts believe restraint should be practiced near
"That is difficult in Cuba," said Jake Kritzer, an ocean and fisheries
expert at the New York's Environmental Defense Fund. "It is a skinny
island. You're never far from a coast."
Overdevelopment can damage coral reefs in a number of ways.
A project may call for the clearing of mangroves that protect the reef
from overexposure to the sun or by keep the water's acidity level from
becoming harmful. Construction can create sediment that clouds the water
and blocks the sunlight reefs need. Landscape fertilizers could pollute
Cuban waters and smother the reefs.
"There's a series of impacts if a development is not planned or managed
right," Kritzer said.
The island nation experienced a record breaking year for tourism in 2015
with 3.5 million visitors, according to its Ministry of Tourism. And
2016 is on pace to top that due in part to 94,000 U.S. visitors through
April, an increase of 93 percent from that time last year. These numbers
do not include Cuban Americans visiting family.
In response to its growing popularity as a vacation destination, the
Cuban government hopes to add up to 110,000 hotel rooms in the next 14
years. To do so, Cuba will need money from outside their nation, and the
United States is ripe with potential investors.
Starwood Hotels and Resorts is already in the Cuba market. It signed a
deal with the Cuban government in March to renovate and manage two
state-owned hotels in Havana and a third in Santiago.
The Cuban government says it wants to develop in an eco-friendly manner.
Kritzer points to the nation's policy requiring the protection of 25
percent of its marine habitat from development.
But will Cuban and U.S. interests honor that commitment? Tourism could
provide a quick fix for Cuba's struggling economy. Environmental
organizations fear that there will be great pressure to build massive
The Cuban government has asked Guggenheim and other environmental
experts to encourage American businesses to propose eco-friendly
developments. Guggenheim said their consul may be needed.
"According to my Cuban colleagues responsible for permitting new
projects, they have already received a parade of bad ideas from the
U.S.," he said.
Still, there's no doubt that Cuba needs new hotels to accommodate a
growing number of tourists. But there are eco-friendly hotel projects
under way, such as one in Cocodrilo, a community on the southern shore
of Isle of Youth.
The community wants to add small bed-and-breakfasts, not a major hotel.
Hundreds of residents there are already learning to scuba dive and
identify and protect species of fish and coral reef, Guggenheim said, so
they can lead underwater marine life tours.
"What I've told Cuba is they don't have to follow the mass tourism
model," he said. "They have something authentic that people will pay a
"Let's emphasize meaningful travel to Cuba rather than what every other
country is doing."
Source: Environmentalists fear tourism, development will threaten Cuba's
pristine coral reefs | In Cuba Today -