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Crocodiles from the Boca de Guama nursery in Cuba's Ciénaga de Zapata.
Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS
Cuba Encourages Tourism in Its Largest Marsh
By Patricia Grogg

One of the most important wetlands of the Caribbean, Ciénaga de Zapata in Cuba, is throwing open the doors to tourists interested in nature.

CIÉNAGA DE ZAPATA, Cuba, Sep 28 (Tierramérica).- The Zapata wren (Ferminia cerverai) is known 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 of Santo Tomás, in Cuba's Ciénaga de Zapata, or Zapata Marsh. To see and hear the little bird that is endemic to the marsh - the largest and best preserved in Cuba and the Caribbean islands - is often a goal of those who visit this area, which so far is little explored by international tourists, who usually come for vacations of sun and sand.

But tourism officials have decided to open the doors to travelers who are seeking something more than a good tan.

"We have four well-appointed hotels for the segment of tourists that appreciates nature, and those who might be interested in hiking, bird watching, diving or sport fishing," commercial director of the tourist outfitter Cubanacán in Ciénaga, Estanislao Rodríguez, told Tierramérica.

This vast and sparsely populated municipality on the southern coast of Matanzas province, some 200 kilometers from Havana, is home to no less than 65 percent of Cuba's bird species, 1,000 plant species and native amphibians, like the Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer), which finds its preferred habitat here.

From late November to March, from the environmental station of Las Salinas, it is possible to see 65 migratory bird species as they flee the cold temperatures of the boreal winter in Canada and the United States.

This ecosystem, declared a biosphere reserve in 2000 and international wetlands site (Ramsar Convention) in 2001, is predominantly low plains - marshy and semi-marshy - with savanna vegetation. It also has forests, rivers, lakes and some 70 kilometers of caves in which semicircular freshwater lagoons have formed, known as "cenotes".

The area receives just 100,000 tourists a year. An advertising campaign is under way to bring in more visitors, primarily in Europe, which still has a strong demand for specialized travel.

The likely opening of travel from the United States, which for now remains under 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 wetland.

As for that possibility, Cuba's Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero told Tierramérica that any "massive arrival has to go to the beaches." The development of ecotourism to which Cuba aspires will be based on fairness and in function of the maximum visitor volume established for each site, he added.

It is increasingly necessary to diversify Cuba's products, and nature tourism is one such opportunity, but it will be done in a "sustainable" way, said Marrero in an international meeting aimed at promoting Ciénaga de Zapata as a travel destination.

Pablo Bouza, director of Ciénaga de Zapata National Park, which extends over almost the entire marsh area of 600,000 square kilometers, also told Tierramérica that steps have been taken to ensure that tourism "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 each semester," he explained.

By way of example, Bouza cited the case of hiking in the lake and cave system of the marsh, where only three of the 90 flooded caverns will be open for visitors. Furthermore, in each visit, no more than seven people can enter, and there is a maximum of 15 each day.

Officials also have faith in the close relationship between the tourism industry and the government agencies for environmental protection.

Research in this area propose the adoption of legislation to oversee compliance with existing regulation, 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 Ciénaga 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, and Baconao and Cuchillas del Toa. 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.

* IPS correspondent.

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