Sharing experiences across the Yucatán Channel: A learning exchange on sustainable tourism and marine protected areas
By: Katie Thompson and Fernando Bretos
Over the past two years, tourism from the U.S. to Cuba has increased 36%, while tourism from other countries has also risen. The increasing demand, coupled with Cuba’s limited service and infrastructure capacity for tourism are posing never-before-seen challenges for Cuban tourism officials and planning agencies. Pressure is mounting on the country’s coastal environments.
This new reality places Cuba in a unique position to consider the future of its tourism industry. How can Cuba develop sustainable marine and coastal tourism that protects the clear waters, sandy beaches, and marine life on which that same industry depends? An opportunity exists for Cuba to learn from the experiences of neighboring Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) countries in an effort to minimize the effect of the all-inclusive mass tourism experience that is causing both environmental havoc and deterioration of the local social fabric in many places around the world.
In December of 2017, CubaMar brought a Cuban delegation to Cancun and Cozumel, Quintana Roo, Mexico to learn about sustainable tourism successes and shortfalls. Cuba and Cozumel have many similarities. In addition to being both islands, Cuba and Cozumel both rely on growing cruise ship visitation and dive tourism. For the exchange, we invited 11 Cuban delegates, mostly from the Cuban Centro Nacional de Areas Protegidas (CNAP) the government agency that manages all of Cuba’s 105 protected areas. They were joined by experts from the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program and a cadre of Mexican sustainable tourism experts. Our hosts in Mexico for the week-long exchange were the Municipio de Cozumel and the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI), an initiative made up of nonprofit and private sector representatives working to maintain sustainable tourism in the MAR that supports local communities while ensuring healthy marine and costal resources.
The week started in Cancun with a visit to the Isla Cancun tourism zone which is home to hundreds of large hotels, mostly all-inclusive beach resorts. Tourism in Quintana Roo, the home state of Cancun, has grown at a staggering rate from its beginning in the 1970s when it was only several fishing villages to nearly 10 million annual tourists reported in 2016. Today, Quintana Roo receives almost three times the tourism the entire nation of Cuba receives a year.
Our first visit was to the Torres Escenicas de Cancun, an elevator tower that provided a bird’s eye view of the entire panorama of the Cancun coastline. In plain view was how unchecked tourism development can quickly colonize a once pristine area. After the tower experience we walked on the hotel beaches which revealed high levels of erosion due to the construction on once vegetated dunes. Leading the site visit was Vicente Ferreyra of Sustentur, a local nonprofit that aims to encourage sustainable best practices in the region. A presentation by Gonzalo Merediz, director of Amigos de Si’an Ka’an provided statistics on the development the Mexican Caribbean and a snapshot of Si’an Ka’an, a nature preserve that is leading the way in promoting sustainable use of the areas coastal resources.
Next our delegation traveled to Cozumel where we first heard presentations by organizations working on sustainable tourism in the region. The director of MARTI, Sarah Connor, presented about some of MARTI’s projects to promote collaboration between the private, nonprofit, and government sectors of the MAR region in order to lessen the potential negative impacts of the tourism industry on the reefs. Participants heard from the Municipio de Cozumel and the German Corporation for International Cooperation about their study on the effects of the cruise tourism industry in Cozumel.
After the presentations, we visited two sites, the Puerta Maya cruise terminal and the Iberostar Hotel. Cozumel receives a staggering 4 million cruise tourists per year and Puerta Maya receives most of those. By visiting the terminal during peak hours when three cruise ships were unloading passengers, our Cuban delegation was able to witness firsthand how large-scale cruise tourism can monopolize the clientele while preventing economic benefits to local communities outside of the facility. It is our hope that Cuba will avoid this type of large scale cruise tourism. This will require hard negotiating from the Cuban government to ensure their leverage is never compromised.
After our visit to Puerta Maya we visited the Iberostar Cozumel Hotel, which is conducting voluntary best practices to ensure sustainability in its facility. It recycles wastewater, landscapes with native vegetation and ensures its guests use the hotel’s resources smartly. To finish the day, we heard from Rosendo Martínez from the Cuban Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of the Environment, about a successful small-scale tourism project near Cuba’s Bay of Pigs.
The last day we heard presentations by representatives of Mexico’s Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP), specifically the director of Parque Nacional de Arrecifes de Cozumel and the regional director for the Yucatan Peninsula and Caribbean. Finally, some participants went for a dive in the Parque Nacional de Arrecifes de Cozumel to see first-hand the coral reef we had talked about all week.
Overall, it was clear participants from all countries learned from each other and formed lasting professional connections. The Cuban delegation in particular brought back lessons learned from decades of experience in Quintana Roo. We hope to conduct additional phases of the exchange in the future to continue the sharing of experiences and knowledge between Cuba and Mexico.
Thank you to the Summit Foundation for the support to implement the exchange and to our generous hosts in Cozumel--it would not have been possible without you!
Photos by: Shireen Rahimi, Katie Thompson, and Fernando Bretos