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Although Cuba is home to beautiful beaches, forests, mountains, mangroves, and wetlands, the country is somewhat unsustainable. Cuba has suffered severe deforestation since the colonial era, and its increasing industrialization (using Soviet-era technology) polluted the environment. In the 1990s, however, the government established laws to protect the environment. Since then, organic farms have flourished, and the recent land reform that gives unused fertile land to private farmers is encouraging news. However, Cuba is still essentially a third world country and environmentally-friendly ventures, like recycling and researching alternative forms of energy, are not a visible priority in contemporary Cuba.

That said, Cuba has an excellent network of nationally protected natural areas, such as the Parque Nacional de Humboldt and the Viñales Valley. While traveling in these preserved areas, respect the environment by not dumping garbage, sticking to trails, and employing local guides; also, tip local guides (who are all employed by the state and earn no more than CUC$15-CUC$20 per month).

Cuba's only real ecotourism project is at Las Terrazas. It was a planned community project that has preserved local flora and fauna and forests and the population is all involved in exploiting its ecotourism potential.

Cuba is blessed with gorgeous beaches, and fortunately most beach areas are not overdeveloped -- even though there are dozens of large all-inclusive resorts that line many of Cuba's beaches. The seas surrounding Cuba are pristine, and careful diving and fishing operations are practiced, which helps preserve sealife. However, stone causeways run across miles of sea, connecting remote islands to the mainland, and thus bringing more visitors and in turn more pollution to the once isolated areas.

Although tourism is encouraged, the tourism industry props up a system of government that rules over a people who are not free. Visitors to Cuba can support the local economy by staying with local people through the system of casas particulares and eating at paladares. These bed and breakfasts and private restaurants support a large network of local people. Locals sell fruits and vegetables at agromercados throughout Cuba -- and now from kiosks and their own homes.

Some state hotels -- the Club Amigo chain in particular -- now run partly on solar panels, and all houses, offices, and hotels in Cuba now use energy-saving light bulbs in a switch that was part of a nationally-enforced campaign a few years ago. However, most of the all-inclusive hotels serve imported food and pay their Cuban employees a mere CUC$10-CUC$15 a month. Do tip your maids, waiters, and tour guides (but not tour desk operatives who are taking their cut from the published prices of tours).

General Resources for Responsible Travel

The following websites provide valuable wide-ranging information on sustainable travel.

  • Responsible Travel (www.responsibletravel.com) is a great source of sustainable travel ideas; the site is run by a spokesperson for ethical tourism in the travel industry. Sustainable Travel International (www.sustainabletravelinternational.org) promotes ethical tourism practices, and manages an extensive directory of sustainable properties and tour operators around the world.
  • Carbonfund (www.carbonfund.org), TerraPass (www.terrapass.org), and Cool Climate (http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu) provide info on "carbon offsetting," or offsetting the greenhouse gas emitted during flights.
  • Greenhotels (www.greenhotels.com) recommends green-rated member hotels around the world that fulfill the company's stringent environmental requirements. Environmentally Friendly Hotels (www.environmentallyfriendlyhotels.com) offers more green accommodation ratings.
  • Volunteer International (www.volunteerinternational.org) has a list of questions to help you determine the intentions and the nature of a volunteer program. For general info on volunteer travel, visit www.volunteerabroad.org and www.idealist.org.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.