What is sustainable tourism and how you can travel sustainably in Cuba

January 27, 2021 | by James Corporal

It has become more and more evident every year, that the effects of global warming and climate change are harmful to our planet. Temperatures are rising world-wide, droughts are becoming longer and more extreme around the world, and tropical storms are becoming more severe due to warmer ocean water temperatures. Extreme weather is the new normal.

Even closer to home, we are experiencing increasingly hotter Summers and freakish Winter weather.

Sustainable travel and its paradoxes, understanding the problem

We know that transportation creates the largest proportion of greenhouse gases through burning fossil fuels, so it makes sense to travel better. But what does travelling better mean? One idea is having one big holiday per year rather than taking many short breaks throughout the year.

There are many other ways travel and tourism can be unsustainable too. However, there are also many ways you can avoid exacerbating the problem.

To name a few, staying in big multinational hotels, eating in chain restaurants, and buying factory-made souvenirs are all ways of engaging in unsustainable travel.

Cuban farmer getting ready with his horse drawn carriage

But there are countries which have made every effort to develop tourism in an ecological and sustainable way, protecting their unique nature and culture for future generations. And if we are sensitive to the importance of sustainability, there are ways we can travel which support local communities and ecosystems.

Perhaps more famous for its rum, cigars and old cars, Cuba ought to be just as famous for its sustainable policies and numerous natural parks and six biosphere reserves, set up to protect its exuberant natural beauty. Sustainability is part of the Cuban DNA. In fact, the WWF named this captivating island as the most sustainable country in the world in 2016.

How Cuba is so sustainable

Cuba has been ranked as the world’s most sustainable country on the Sustainable Development Index, an illustrative report created with figures from 2015. The list includes 163 countries around the world and Cuba comes out on top of the pile.

The Sustainable Development Index measures each country’s CO2 emissions aligned with other parameters linked to human development like education and life expectancy.

To briefly explain how Cuba boasts this illustrious title, we need to look at Cuba’s recent history. Cloistered from the rest of the world by its political affiliations and the US Embargo on Cuba, the island’s cities may have crumbled, but its wildlife thrived. With thousands of miles of unspoiled coast, pristine wetlands and virgin forest, Cuba is a wild refuge unrivalled in the Caribbean.

Traveller cycling near La Terrazas in Pinar del Rio, Cuba

While the rest of the Caribbean was being developed for tourism, Cuba pretty much stood still, so that from an environmental point of view, Cuba is the now crown jewel of the Caribbean.

Cuba’s tourism industry developed relatively late and only started in earnest 30 years ago, during the “Special Period”, the financial crisis that followed after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

To boost the ailing economy, Fidel Castro invested in the island’s unique beauty and sustainability to attract tourism. Whether his hand was forced through lack of funds, or whether it was a stroke of far-sighted genius is for you, the reader, to decide, depending on your personal political affiliations and opinions on Cuba’s enigmatic leader!

Crucially however, the Cuban Government did not simply build mass beach resorts for a tourist influx, like many islands in the Caribbean have done, preferring to promote “ecoturismo” and Cuba’s natural beauty over man-made resorts and attractions.

The Cuban government embraced environmentalism like no country had done up to this point in history, implementing a series of policies to reduce the waste of natural resources and to minimise the island’s carbon footprint.

By 2006 Cuba was the only nation in the world that met the WWF’s definition of sustainable development and Castro’s long-term anti-globalisation plan started to get noticed on a global scale.

Cuba, an island that recycles

If you have been following the BBC’s “Last Woman on Earth” docuseries with Sara Pascoe, you may have seen that the first episode was set in Cuba.

One of the most memorable parts of the programme showed how Cubans recycle and re-use almost everything. It is deeply set into the Cuban mentality, and a lack of resources has encouraged this make-do-and-mend mindset throughout Cuban society.

Cuban kids playing football in Parque Trillo in Havana Centro

Furniture is re-upholstered and re-stuffed, mattresses are re-sprung, clothes are mended and handed down, electrical goods are fixed and re-wired, and shoes are re-heeled.

Whereas our society has promoted the convenience of simply replacing a broken set of headphones just by going online and ordering another pair, a Cuban would take them to be repaired.

Most Cuban neighbourhoods still have a cobbler, a fridge mechanic, a mattress repair person, a seamstress and even someone who fixes broken umbrellas.

Necessity has been the mother of invention and we can learn a lot from Cuban frugality.

What exactly is “sustainable tourism”?

Now we know that Cuba is the most sustainable country in the world, how can we make sure that our trip to Cuba has a positive effect on the environment and culture?

Over recent years, the notion of “sustainable tourism” has become a trendy buzzword which travel operators use as a marketing ploy in order to sell more trips and assuage the guilt of conscientious travellers.

Horse drawn carriage are a common sight in the roads of Cuba

Therefore, it is worth understanding the differences between sustainable tourism, green tourism, and eco-tourism in order to avoid falling into this trendy linguistic trap.

For example, the term “green tourism” has been so overused as a marketing ploy, it is now looked on with suspicion. Is the company truly serious about sustainability or are they simply “greenwashing”?

Some hotels call themselves “green” just because they place the “please hang up your towels if you would like to reuse them” cards, doing little else to manage their carbon footprint or ensure that profits stay in country.

Although reducing laundry certainly helps, it is only the tip of the iceberg and hotels need to be doing much more.

Creating initiatives like mass-recycling programmes, using environmentally friendly cleaning supplies, eliminating single-use plastics, and creating water-conservation protocols are just some things popular tourist resorts should be embracing now.

Clearly large resort hotels aren’t the solution for an eco-friendly holiday.

So, what about ecotourism? Ecotourism, as defined by the International Ecotourism Society (TIES), is:

“Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

Parrish Turner of the Culture Trip comments on this definition in a recent article:

“Ecotourism is the kind of travel geared towards conservation and preservation of wildlife. This term will rarely be used to describe urban tourism because it is about getting out into the natural world. There is less of an emphasis on where you stay and more on what you do while you’re there.”

Lastly, the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) defines sustainable tourism as:

“Referring to the environmental, economic and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development. A suitable balance must be established between all three dimensions to guarantee its long-term sustainability.”

If you want your holiday to make a difference to the environment you should be committing to ecotourism and ensuring that your holiday is sustainable.

What can you do to contribute to a sustainable holiday?

First and foremost, choose a travel company that actively promotes sustainable and eco-tourism. You want to look for companies that actively care for the environment, support and stimulate the local economy, showcase and respect local culture and monitor their responsible travel policies on a regular basis.

Most companies who are serious about travelling responsibly will have a well-developed responsible travel policy posted on their website.

Holidaymakers swimming in one of the waterfalls of El Nicho in Cuba

Sustainable holidays always use locally owned accommodation and restaurants, local expert guides, and often use activities such as cycling or trekking to move from A to B.

These holidays are less about luxury in the traditional sense and more about getting to know a new environment or culture in depth and with respect.

So, look for holidays which encourage local engagement. Just by jumping on a public bus with the locals is a great way of getting to know a country and reducing your carbon footprint when abroad. Cycling and walking offer the best modes of clean transportation and, if you want to go further afield, try to use public transportation.

Clearly, bicycles are an excellent way of getting up close and personal with your holiday destination, so think about hiring a bike upon arrival or even book a cycling holiday.

Travelling by bicycle enables you to experience a country in a closer, more authentic way than if you travel by bus.

Eating local food will also contribute to making your holiday sustainable. Not only are you contributing to the local economy, but it is also less expensive and less wasteful to eat locally produced food, so steer clear of fast food chains and dive into local cuisine.

What’s more, trying the local cuisine is all part of the travel experience, right?

Stay in locally owned and run B&B’s or hotels so that your money stays in the country you’re visiting, and you’ll be investing in the future wealth of the country.

Rooms will be decorated according to local tastes and you’ll get a better feel for the local culture and customs by staying in family-run accommodation. Service also tends to be more personal and friendlier than in large hotels.

Be sensitive to the scarcity of clean water in many countries around the world; water can be much scarcer than it is in the UK. Take shorter showers if you are somewhere where there are water shortages, turn off the tap as you soap and don’t leave the tap running while you brush your teeth.

And, rather than drinking expensive bottled water, invest in a water filter bottle, a cost effective way of ensuring a constant supply of clean drinking water wherever you are in the world.

Lastly, when considering souvenirs, endeavour to buy locally made souvenirs, avoiding crafts made from coral or other endangered species. You’ll be supporting local handicrafts and you’ll make a difference to someone living in the country you’re visiting.

Sustainable holidays in Cuba

In the year 1997, an important marker was laid down by the Cuban authorities regarding sustainable tourism. The “Ley del Medio Ambiente de la República de Cuba” (Law 81) was passed, specifically focussing on mitigating the negative impacts of our way of life by implementing strict environmental regulations.

These regulations were implemented for the general population of Cuba and included controlling power usage, limiting imported produce, and specifically focussed on promoting ecotourism within the tourism industry as a way to make the most of its “rich natural heritage”.

Cuban paladar in Vinales, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

This “rich natural heritage” consists of six UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, six Ramsar sites and nine World Heritage Sites, but few serve as a better blueprint for sustainability than Las Terrazas Bio-Reserve.

Las Terrazas Biosphere Reserve consists of a large area of unspoiled land and a small village about 50 miles due West of Havana, founded in 1971. It was created to revive an area that had been exploited by decades of logging to the extent that it had become an uninhabitable desert.

A huge reforestation project of 5,000 hectares took place, and the new village was connected to the national road network, with access to education and health services provided.

During the economic collapse of the “Special Period”, the authorities were forced to find an alternative for Las Terrazas in order to boost its economy. The answer lay with nature-based tourism and ecotourism, and so Las Terrazas became the emblem of Cuba’s commitment to Sustainable Tourism.

Subsequently, the four-star Hotel Moka was built on a hill in the forest and opened in 1994, boasting 42 rooms with views over the treetops and village.

Fast-forward 25 years, and at the time of writing, the community is made up of 273 families and 1,300 inhabitants, all surrounded by a total of over six million planted trees.

It has become a paradise for local flora and fauna and a haven for migrating and emigrating birdlife.

Visitors go bird-watching in the woods, observe countless animal species unique to the island of Cuba, hike the mountain trails amongst the indigenous flora, swim in the natural waterfalls and lakes, or explore the forests on horseback and bicycle.

The entire community now runs on and around tourism. The community is essentially a social project that responds to its own necessities whilst sustaining, financing, and governing itself.

How a red country went green

There is no doubt that recent history has forced Cuba down a more sustainable path than its near neighbours.

Galvanised by the 1959 revolution, traumatised by decades of American blockades, and stigmatised by the post-Soviet Union 1990s, the Cuban system had to find alternative solutions to common problems.

Throughout Cuba, every city, town and village still has co-operatively-owned vegetable plots set up to ensure a sustainable food supply in the event of a hypothetical invasion by the Americans.

Tourist touring the mountains of El Escambray in Central Cuba

Furthermore, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990, when Russian fertilisers were no longer accessible, these vegetable plots went exclusively organic. As a result, Cuba now has more urban vegetable-growing initiatives than anywhere on the planet.

In a similar vein to Las Terrazas, is Viñales. Head west out of Havana past Las Terrazas on Route A4, then head north onto Route 241 at Pinar del Rio. You cannot miss it.

Viñales, where absolutely everything is organic, is a spectacularly beautiful valley with spectacular dome-like limestone mountains called “mogotes” strewn wherever Nature, in all her fortuitous playfulness, saw fit.

The valley boasts UNESCO World Heritage status for its beautiful landscapes, but what’s more, its farming techniques have not changed for several centuries.

All farming in this region is done without machinery or chemicals and as a result, you can still see oxen ploughing the land and farmers making herbal concoctions of leaves and roots to spray on plants as natural pesticides.

Visitors to Viñales, or indeed anywhere throughout Cuba can support the local economy by staying with Cuban families at the wonderful system of “casas particulares” situated around the island, as well as eating at “paladares”.

The casas particulares are a type of bed & breakfast hostel, offering accommodation and food, supporting the livelihoods of a large network of local people.

Similarly, paladares, often set up in people’s own homes, are an unmissable way of sampling genuinely home-cooked cuisine made from the organic produce grown in Cuban soil.

It is tempting to say that being sustainable in Cuba has never been easier, but can tourists ever really be sustainable? Can we avoid the marketing hyperbole and buzz-word box-ticking?

Considering the future of travel

The simple answer is yes, as long as you’re prepared to travel in ways which only leave positive changes to the areas you visit. It is about trying to put back into a country as much as we take out, avoiding the extraction of vital resources that cannot be renewed.

The balance is recognising that development and growth can be forces for good, but not if they are at the expense of future generations.

Traveller taking pictures of the local flora in Las Terrazas, Cuba

Travel done well can forge new bonds and bring people together, and can bring wealth, health and education to communities who would struggle otherwise, and it allows us to learn from one another.

Even so, aiming to enjoy a completely carbon neutral holiday is probably not realistic just yet.

Flights are the major problem and you would have to swim or sail to your destination, walk, cycle or jog your way around, stay in local people’s houses whilst using only renewable energy, and eating nothing but locally sourced organic food.

Obviously, this is unfeasible but you can make a concerted effort to reduce to a minimum the number of times you fly each year and make your trip as environmentally friendly as possible.

And it’s good to know that aerospace engineers are already working on zero emission solutions, such as the Airbus ZEROe aircraft whose estimated launch in 2035 will revolutionise flight, permitting voyages of 2,000 nautical miles and carrying 200 passengers using hydrogen hybrid hydro fan or turboprop engines.

So, while we wait for zero emissions flights, we can make individual holidaymaking decisions which will have a positive effect on the environment.

How holidays to Cuba with Cubania Travel are genuinely sustainable

Cubania Travel has made responsible travel part of everything we do since we first started organizing trips to Cuba; from the local ground staff we employ to the family-run restaurants and B&Bs we use, we aim to ensure that your money stays in Cuba and supports local businesses. We do things the “Cuban Way” which, as you know by now, is the sustainable way.

Our main focus is offering cycling tours in Cuba but, over the years, we’ve discovered that not everyone is prepared to get sweaty! So, we have found other sustainable ways of showcasing this extraordinary country and offer trekking trips and kayaking holidays or cultural holidays which explore Cuban culture in depth.

Cyclist encounter a horse drawn carriage on his way to Vinales in Western Cuba

Travelling to Cuba isn’t for everyone, we get that. It’s one of those places which can beguile you as much as it can infuriate you! Cuba is different. But that it exactly what makes any trip to the island so worthwhile.

Over the past 20 years our aim has been to provide exceptional and sustainable holidays which enrich the lives of active travellers and our community, while stimulating the local economy and providing opportunities for our staff.

Whether you are discovering the charms of Havana or ascending the heights into the mountains, active travel is the best way to see and protect Cuba’s unarguable beauty. Explore by bike, by foot, by kayak!

If you want to know more about how we ensure our trips are sustainable, please read our responsible travel policy, which outlines the commitment we make on caring for the environment, stimulating the local economy, and showcasing and respecting Cuban culture. And as proud members of ABTA, we actively take part in their annual “Make Holidays Greener” campaign.

Tourist riding a bike in Vinales waves hello to the camera

Cubania Travel strives to protect Cuba’s natural habitats, unmatched anywhere else on Earth. For many species of plant, bird and animal, Cuba is their last endemic habitat, the only place where they are protected and can thrive.

Cuba’s history has made it an accidental Eden, but recent policies have also ensured that Nature has been preserved where elsewhere it has been irreparably damaged. How is that not worth fighting for?

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Need help planning your Cuba holiday?

With over 20 years of experience organising sustainable tours in Cuba, at Cubania we have your back. From Cuba cycling tours to family or LGBTQI-friendly Cuba tours, we’ve got something for everyone!

Written by

James Corporal

James Corporal - Avid cyclist and cubaphile.

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