Last updated: 05:30 PM ET, Thu April 28 2016

Celebrating Natural Capital: Lindblad Enters Cuba

Tour Operator | David Cogswell | April 28, 2016

Celebrating Natural Capital: Lindblad Enters Cuba

photos and video courtesy of LIndblad Expeditions

Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic has unveiled its new Cuba program, and anyone who is familiar with the company knows that the program will not be like any other tour operator’s program.

Lindblad Expeditions inhabits its own special niche in the marketplace, with few other companies to compare it to. One of the company’s highest priorities is to make sure its programs adhere to the strictest principles of sustainable tourism.

Lindblad’s goal in Cuba, as stated by its president and founder, Sven Lindblad, is “to begin to develop some tourism that really celebrates natural capital of Cuba and builds value in that, from the perspective that it’s good business to preserve this natural capital. I think that is a good thing, a really, really good idea.”

READ MORE: Lindblad Celebrates 50 Years of Antarctic Expeditions

Today’s Lindblad Expeditions, founded by Sven Lindblad in 1979 as Special Expeditions, is the spiritual descendent of Lindblad Travel, founded in 1958 by Sven’s father Lars-Eric Lindblad, and it follows the same star, that of the explorer.

Lars-Eric Lindblad was the first to take tourists to Antarctica and among the first to pioneer travel to many exotic destinations, including the Galapagos Islands, Easter Island, China and the Seychelles.

In recent decades, as the concerns of the world have evolved and with fewer new destinations to discover for the first time, Lindblad Expeditions has shifted its interest from finding new destinations to caring for the ones that have been discovered, and are in danger from over-exploitation and other destructive environmental forces.

“In February I spent nearly two weeks in Cuba largely exploring the southern coast,” Lindblad told TravelPulse. “Two years earlier I experienced other parts of the country, working with colleagues at the Environmental Defense Fund to figure out how to come up something that would blend history and culture, but also the natural capital of Cuba, particularly the marine resources.”

Cuba has some of the best preserved marine zones in the Caribbean. “That’s partially because Fidel Castro was an avid diver,” said Lindblad, “and he took a strong personal interest in ensuring the protection of certain areas.”

The well-preserved conditions of Cuba’s coastline are also partially attributable to the fact that there has been no tourism industry and no over fishing.

“A variety of factors come into play so that there are parts of Cuba that have unbelievably healthy marine systems,” said Lindblad. “What we’re trying to do is to give our guests a multi-faceted experience. There are obvious things that people should see, places like Havana and Trinidad. And then there are some places that are not obvious and not part of the resort development concept that is prevalent on the northern shore of Cuba. We’ve put together a very interesting program that combines these elements.”

“Cuba by Land and Sea: Cultural Heritage and Natural Wonders” will be a 10-night program that begins on land with three nights at the legendary Hotel Nacional overlooking the sea in Havana.

The itinerary then takes to the sea for a seven-night cruise aboard the Panorama II, a 44-passenger sail cruiser. The itinerary will be richly populated with people-to-people encounters throughout, but not merely because they are still required by law.  

“The interaction with Cuban people in various disciplines, from music to art to culture to science is what we intend to do,” said Lindblad. “That’s very much part of the program, but not because we ‘have to do it by law.’ If that law didn’t exist we would do the things we plan to do anyway, because why wouldn’t you interact with the people?”

The interactive people-to-people encounters are designed to accomplish a series of things:

• To provide a historical and cultural background of Cuba

• Study its architecture

• Explore Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) Marine Park with researchers who are working to protect it

• Meet with naturalists at Zapata Swamp National Park and the Cuban Keys to learn about the protection of endangered species 

• Visit some of the new paladars (the privately owned restaurants)

• See the Bay of Pigs where the historic failed U.S. invasion of Cuba took place in 1961

...And experience many encounters with Cuban musicians, artists and artisans along the way.

Lindblad still has to gain approval for a couple of parts of the proposed itinerary and will be heading to Cuba to hopefully get the approval and finalize the itinerary in the next two weeks.

Lindblad is highly conscious of the fact that with Cuba on the brink of profound changes, many decisions that will be made in the near future that will affect Cuba’s tourism and economic development for a long time.

“What is fascinating about Cuba,” said Lindblad, “is that there are a lot of very smart people who care very deeply about natural resources of the country. They are very effective at their work and they have collaborated effectively with Americans. Now Cuba has a big question ahead of itself, which is that once the floodgates really open up to the United States, how will that affect their sense of how they should develop this opportunity? On one side of the equation is mass tourism, in which case ultimately, once the lure of the forbidden goes away, they would wind up basically competing with all other Caribbean countries.”

Or, alternatively, Cuba can try to develop its own kind of tourism, characteristic of its own unique national personality.

“They can elect to have at least a part of what they offer be really unique in the context of Caribbean tourism,” said Lindblad. “I’m sure that will be hotly debated in a variety of corners. What we would like to do is to set a precedent for a certain kind of tourism that hopefully will be successful not only from our point of view as a business, but will be viewed in Cuba as a good idea.”

As Cuba opens to a huge demand from Americans, it will force Cubans to make important decisions as to how the transition will be managed.

“Some things are moving so fast, and some things will move at glacial pace,” said Lindblad. “This is a lot of change real fast, and there are a lot of constituencies that are trying to come to grips with it. Cuba is a unique circumstance in that regard. It’s closed off to the United States, though not to the rest of the world. Then having this massive population, this massive interest so close, how are they going to handle that? That’s going to create an enormous amount of debate. What we’d like to do is be part of the debate. It’s not our job to tell anyone what they should do. But I do believe it’s our job to at least represent some alternative ideas.”

Though Americans see Cuba as quaint and charming, Lindblad warn that there is a danger of having our views distorted by rose-tinted glasses.

“We have to be careful not to over romanticize it,” said Lindblad. “I met with all kinds of Cubans on both of these expeditions, the first one having nothing to do with tourism. I loved all the people I met. They were wonderful and thoughtful and smart and committed. But there are a lot of problems and a lot of dissatisfaction there.

“I was thinking about these cars. Lots of people romanticize these cars, they’re very symbolic. But Cubans don’t want to drive those cars. It’s just that nobody can afford to buy a new car.”  

As Cuba moves into a new era in which their government has relaxed restrictions on business, there is concern and hope in regard to how the society will change. Cubans want and need change. But they want to do it in their own way.

READ MORE: Cuba Plans for Hotel Boom

“The idea of something that is not what they have now, but not going to an extreme in another direction, some hybrid here that I think might be able to emerge. That’s hopefully what will prevail. Let’s look at what we have, look at what is outside, let’s try and figure out how we can assimilate the best of both worlds, so to speak. No question it’s going to be very interesting to watch in the years to come. We’re really happy that we’re going to be able to be involved with the country.”

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