Cuba’s Tourism, the Embargo, and the Environment

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By Erika Sato, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Below you’ll find some excerpts. To download a PDF version of the full article, click here. Our thanks to Leslie Offutt for bringing this story to our attention.

Cuba’s coral reefs are well known for possessing some of the best places in the world for diving. Off the coast of Jardines de la Reina, one can find plenty of biodiversity in pristine condition. Since the Cuban Revolution, the government (in spite of economic constraints) has successfully implemented progressive ecological policies that, along with the isolating effects of the embargo, have so far protected its ecosystems—perhaps more effectively than any other Latin American nation. The recent boom in tourism (Cuba’s largest industry) promises to become exponential should the United States remove its economic and travel embargo on Cuba. This sudden and extreme growth in tourism may jeopardize Cuba’s natural heritage. Experts fear that Cuba may face severe environmental degradation and see its coral reefs eventually disappear if it does not take further environmental precautions. If and when the United States removes its embargo, Cuba will likely receive an avalanche of U.S. tourists, corporations, and cash, which could quickly destroy much of its currently healthy coral reefs.

Although the increase in tourism may result in negative environmental consequences, this would not be reason to halt the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba. As the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) has found, the embargo is problematic for a variety of reasons. This article is therefore not meant to criticize the phasing back of the embargo, but rather to argue that the process must include the proactive implementation of strong environmental legislation. If such legislation is achieved, removing the trade embargo will allow Cuba more autonomy and the agency to better enforce its environmental protection measures.

A Rich and Fragile Natural Heritage

Cuba is extremely rich in biodiversity. In addition to its forests and terrestrial wildlife, there are two specific threatened ecosystems worth discussing. The coral reefs are very important to tourism and could face much higher traffic in the next few years due to its increase. This increase could easily lead to the ecosystem’s destruction from the sheer number of people touching and stepping on the various delicate parts of the reef. However, another lesser-known and equally important ecosystem is Cuba’s mangroves. Unsustainable tourism industry development has already destroyed around 10,000 acres of mangroves, ecosystems that are extremely rare and valuable for their role in coastal protection from pollution and soil salinization.

Environmental Regulation of Tourism in Cuba

One way the Cuban government has attempted to combat these issues while developing its tourism industry is through ecotourism in wildlife refuges. This trend began in the early 1990’s in projects such as the reserve in the Sierra del Rosario, just west of Havana. This site had been exploited and destroyed over the past 200 years by coffee plantations, overgrazing, and deforestation before it was converted into a social project, re-forested, and later used very successfully for ecotourism. Unfortunately, Cuba has also had much less successful attempts at ecotourism. Particularly problematic has been its ‘nature tourism’ which, rather than focusing on principles of sustainability, tends to only focus on tourists’ enjoyment of nature or Cuba’s rural cultures. This form of ‘passive’ tourism may not appear worse than any other form, but its façade of sustainability is quite misleading to customers who wish to engage in responsible tourism.

Furthermore, taking a large number of people into wildlife refuges can be very detrimental to the local ecosystems. In sites that are strictly controlled by the government, ecotourism can be much less destructive to the environment; but regrettably, many sites are protected only nominally and are vulnerable to exploitation because the government pays little attention to enforcement. As Cuba proceeds in developing its tourism industry, expansion of ecotourism could potentially be a sustainable option, but first, the government will need to step up its regulation of its environmental practices. As outlined by Anthony Winson of the University of Guelph, “it would be highly beneficial then, if more natural areas were brought under the protected area regime now set up, and if a set of real sanctions were in place to punish those organisations and individuals who despoil the environment.”

Foreign Investment and United States Embargo

 Ecotourism is thus one important option to consider as Cuba’s tourism industry takes off. Part of the reason for the recent increase in tourism may relate to new laws in Cuba that will potentially affect business and tourism. Foreign direct investment (FDI) is already beginning to flow more heavily, as Cuba passed steeper tax cut measures in an attempt to encourage FDI in March of 2014. This foreign investment incentive, meant to spur development in Cuba, seeks new opportunities for Cuba in healthcare, tourism, transportation, construction, agriculture, and renewable energy. Although the tax cuts include clauses to warn against environmental damage, the tourism industry is a quickly growing sector partially funded by FDI, begging the question of how new infrastructure for tourism can be developed without degrading the environment.

. . .

Environmental Law in Cuba

Thus far, Cuba’s environmental record has been somewhat promising, but there have been concerns about Cuba’s ability to implement its environmental policy. As explained in an earlier section, the results of ecotourism have been mixed. Similarly, a 2009 COHA article concluded that much of Cuba’s recent environmental policy has “only succeeded in aiding the state in squandering resources” while failing to prevent environmental degradation in many areas. However, despite these challenges, Cuba’s intention to work towards preserving its environment is clear. Since long before the 1997 implementation of Cuba’s framework Law of the Environment, Fidel Castro has strongly supported environmental consciousness. In 1992, he stated in an Earth Summit speech, “an important biological species—humankind—is at risk of disappearing due to the rapid and progressive elimination of its natural habitat.” Cuba has made attempts to preserve its environment even if these were not always successful. Cuba has emphasized environmental education to create environmentally conscious citizens, and has even incorporated “sustainable development” and “polluter pays” concepts into its foreign investment policy. The 2009 COHA article argues that Cuba’s government supports the value of environmental initiatives, and it has shown its willingness to contribute to this by signing international initiatives such as the Kyoto Protocol.

Most encouragingly, Cuba has begun to enter into joint environmental agreements with the United States. Given its current relatively pristine conditions, the biggest fear today is that the complete opening of the embargo will result in exploitation of the island’s natural heritage posed by the increase in tourism. However, the United States and Cuba both seem, to some extent, to have foreseen this danger and have taken measures to prevent it. On November 18, 2015, the United States and Cuba formed an agreement aiming to protect coastal ecosystems. This agreement created sister marine sanctuary relationships between Guanahacabibes and Banco de San Antonio in Cuba, and the Florida Keys and Flower Garden Banks national marine sanctuaries in the United States, emphasizing the continuity of the ecosystem between the small patch of ocean (90 miles) separating Florida and Cuba. Subsequently on November 24, 2015, both countries signed a joint statement on environmental protection with topics including protecting biodiversity and coasts, and addressing climate change, natural disasters, and marine pollution. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also established new measures for collaboration in research and exchange of information between the United States and Cuba on concerns related to agriculture and climate.

These measures suggest the possibility for cooperation between the two countries for the good of the environment even though it is often argued that U.S. business interests are the main force driving the normalization process. However, the joint statement has not created any new concrete protections for Cuba’s environment, but is instead supposed to “facilitate and guide” cooperation regarding a variety of issues as listed above. Similarly, the sister sanctuary agreement does not create any new environmental sanctuaries in either country, but rather aims to further opportunities for collaborative research.Thus, it remains to be seen the extent to which United States and Cuba will be able to cooperate to create real change in protective environmental policy.


On May 2, the first cruise ship from the United States in half a century docked in Havana. This cruise was an educational people-to-people trip, but the ship belonged to the U.S. cruise company Carnival Corp., demonstrating that big U.S. corporations are already beginning to take advantage of the new opportunities in Cuba. It seems that growth in commercial tourism on the island is all but inevitable with the normalization of relations. However, this is not to imply that the U.S. should halt the process of normalization. Rather, at the moment, the threat of exploitation is best addressed through new legislation to protect the environment. In considering this new legislation, both continued effort towards collaborative environmental policies between the United States and Cuba, and an emphasis on new policies that Cuba can implement itself as a precaution—such as increasing opportunities for ecotourism with proper government oversight—will be important. The agreements between the United States and Cuba appear to be an important start to Cuba’s preparation for the avalanche of U.S. business interests. Due to the dubiousness of the United States’ environmental record, however, it would be wise for Cuba to strengthen and expand its own protective environmental framework in addition to implementing these bilateral environmental agreements.

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