Student Project on Cuban Ecotourism

Ashleigh Tatarcyk (R) with a Cuban student

Our Cuba voyages under sail are so amazing that it may surprise you that some of the most life-changing adventures occur on land. That’s where we meet Cuban friends who are shaping their country’s future, from culture and the arts to business and the sciences.

Never has such direct engagement been more important – and for some students, it becomes the highlight of the entire journey.

One such Cuban colleague is Felipe Rodriguez, one of Cuba’s premier fly-fishing guides. On the southern coast, where our programs are based, Felipe has created a school for Cuban youth to teach the basics of eco-tourism and the need for natural resource sustainability – as well as the entrepreneurial skills to market these services to foreign visitors.

In the 1970s, Felipe served with the Cuban military in Angola. Now he wages a different type of struggle, to preserve the pristine mangrove flats and rivers of the Zapata nature preserve (Parque Nacional Ciénaga de Zapata), two hours south of Havana. The largest fresh water conservation preserve in the Caribbean, the Zapata is often compared to the Florida Everglades in the majesty of its flora and fauna. But while the Everglades have suffered from decades of misguided development, strict environmental regulation has allowed the Zapata preserve to retain its natural vitality – until now. With demand rising from potential U.S. visitors, its fragile resources are at potential risk.

Pristine mangrove in Zapata preserve

Using mainly his own modest resources, Felipe has started a school for Cuban teenagers on the outskirts of the preserve to teach skills needed to become fishing, kayaking and birding guides. Felipe teaches about catch-and-release practices and prohibitions on fish and lobster poaching within Zapata’s boundaries – all to underscore the urgency of sound environmental protections.

As Americans learn about Cuba’s unparalleled resources, the pressures on treasures like the Zapata preserve will only intensify. But by providing free instruction and supplies for his students to master eco-friendly fishing and tourism practices, Felipe is enhancing both coastal conservation and economic opportunity.

Our January 2017 Winter Term voyage focused on ecotourism in southern Cuba. We met with Felipe and his students who dazzled us with their outstanding fly-casting technique. Then we broke into small groups so the U.S. and Cuban students could talk informally and individually.

Felipe Rodriquez with his fly-fishing students at Jagüey Grande

That made a deep and meaningful impression on everyone. For instance, since returning home, one of our students – Ashleigh Tatarcyk, a senior at the University of Southern Maine – has even undertaken an academic case study on Felipe’s work as an example of how Cuba, during a time of dramatic political change, can leverage its magnificent natural resources into a sustainable tourism industry. We at Ocean Passages will do all we can to assist Felipe’s and Ashleigh’s work together – and will continue to encourage this kind of genuine collaboration.

On Ocean Passages voyages, you experience this transformation up close and personal. You encounter Cubans of all ages and backgrounds – and share their visions for the future of their remarkable island.