ECOTOURISM: What could Cuba mean for you?

In light of President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, further thawing relations between the two countries, many enthusiastic American travelers are asking, “What can I see and do when I go to Cuba?”


Cuba is involved with many organizations that promote conservation and sustainable development.  

-Through the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Cuba has seven cultural sites and two natural sites on the World Heritage List, as well as six biosphere reserves and three sites pending approval.  

-The biosphere reserves are essential ecotourism assets in Cuba.  Not only do they support a variety of ecosystems in the surrounding areas, they also drive economic activity through tourism.  

-Cuba is a member of UNESCO’s Small Island Developing States Programme which works towards sustainable economic development in small island nations.  

According to the World Bank, 12.4 percent of the land in Cuba is protected.  This is only slightly less than the United States, which protects 13.8 percent of the land.  

-These UNESCO sites are already major tourist attractions to countries who have open travel to Cuba.  

Gran_Parque_Nacional_Desembarco_del_Granma#1: The Desembarco del Granma is located on the southeast side of the island.  The Desembarco del Granma holds the world’s largest and best preserved marine limestone terrace system and were caused by tectonic activity.  The area also includes many endemic plants and animals, coral formations, and archaeological sites.  

The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) estimates more than 500,000 Americans will cruise from the United States to Cuba within the first two years, and an additional one million will fly.  And according to the World Travel and Trade Council, the added source of U.S. travelers will exponentially grow the 10-year tourism revenue projections in Cuba.  Some businesses, such as JetBlue, Airbnb, Starwood, and Norwegian Cruise Line, are already preparing for this dramatic increase of tourists and creating connections and itineraries in the island nation.  It might seem pre-emptive, but these companies and others are correct in assuming that Cuba will see a drastic increase of tourists from the U.S. within the next few years.  

Cuba_-_Parque_Baconao_-_prehistoric_scene#2: The Baconao Biosphere Reserve features forests, caves, high biodiversity, and archaeological sites, as well as supporting a human population of more than 38,000.  Around 275,000 tourists come each year to this reserve and stay in one of the thirteen accommodations or one of the three campgrounds.  About 90 percent of the population (who live in the buffer zone of the reserve) benefit from tourist activity in the reserve.  

There are about 61,000 hotel rooms in Cuba.  65 percent of these rooms are 4-and 5-star.  The remaining 27,000 rooms are 3-stars or less.  About 15-20 percent  of the rooms are closed because of maintenance.  Many of these rooms are the casas particulares, or bed and breakfasts.  These are boutique hotels, sometimes unofficially recognized and owned by private citizens.  According to Michael Sykes, of The New York Times, if the embargo is lifted, around 125,000 to 150,000 rooms should be added over the next few years to keep up with demand.  Although many non-Americans currently travel to Cuba, it is possible that once Americans begin to travel to Cuba, it will be viewed as a safer or more desirable destination, thus increasing the inbound tourists further.  

Alejandro_de_Humboldt_National_Park#3: The Alejandro de Humboldt is also on the southern part of the island and is famous for the Caribbean’s best preserved mountainous forest region.  This area is the coolest and rainiest part of the island, causing a high degree of biodiversity. Many of the rocks in this park are toxic to plants, so the flora and fauna has evolved to cope with these harsh conditions which make them more unique. 

With this heightened demand, it is important that the Cuban government keep its focus on sustainable methods of tourism management, such as ecotourism.  In any location, ecotourism should ideally create jobs for the local population as well as foster positive experiences for the tourists, all without compromising the environment for the future.  Conservation and utilization of the tourism products, especially when considering the biosphere reserves and national parks, must function together in order for a feasibly sustainable operation to occur.  Without funds from tourism, or any other means, it is extremely difficult to conserve the natural environment.

Zapata#4: The Ciénaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve is a cluster of biosphere reserves, showing several different ecosystems in one larger area.  These ecosystems include several forests, coral reefs, lagoons, and plains.  Cuban crocodiles and flamingos have their main population living in this area as well.  Some 800,000 tourists come to this biosphere reserve each year and support economic activities of the 9,000 permanent residents.  The local population has a huge and constant input of the use of this area through public hearings and council participation.  Two main goals of this area are conservation and sustainable development.  

The government of Cuba promotes ecotourism because it is a major aspect of their conservation plans in the national parks and biosphere reserves. The use of ecotourism as a means of development can provide the tourist with unique memories and experiences, if the environment is maintained properly, and can even provide a reason for tourist to spend more money at a destination.  Tourists that are specifically coming to see a pristine landscape or a place where people live together with the environment in a distinct way are more likely to pay more per night, be more educated about the destination, and be more considerate of the environment.  This is the ideal situation that Cuba should work towards, even after opening up to leisure tourists from the U.S. In many ways, Cuba can serve as a beacon of ecotourism development for the rest of the world.

But, it’s not just the government’s responsibility.  Make sure when you travel to Cuba, you’re doing your part to preserve the attractions for the future as well!



STUDY ABROAD: What could Italy mean for you? Interview with Justine Hince

Interview conducted on March 13, 2016

Cover“Travelling for me offers new perspectives on the world. It provides inspiration for the work I do. I love being a tourist sometimes and other times just going somewhere with no plans and seeing what happens. Travelling is like hitting the reset button and starting a new chapter. It can feel disconnected from ‘real life’ at times but seem completely normal and everyday. For me, travelling is always a new adventure!”

TCK: What is the name of your school and what is your degree going to be in?

JH: I am working toward my MFA in Physical Theatre at the Accademia dell’Arte in Italy. The school is associated with the Mississippi University for Women in the US so the degree will be valid in the US after I graduate.

TCK: What made you choose the school in Italy?

JH: I was looking for a graduate degree in performance in theatre. While I definitely looked at going abroad, I never considered Italy. After researching the school and speaking to some of the faculty and staff, I knew that this program was the best choice for me. The program is so different than anything I’ve learned in the states. I knew that I wanted to challenge myself by going to grad school and this program has definitely done that so far!

12825334_10103795229661164_337383201_n“Sometimes a place you never considered is the best place for you at that time in your life. Keep your options open to what’s out there and go with your gut.”

TCK: Do you think your travels to England made it easier to study abroad?

JH: Living abroad in England definitely helped prepare me for this adventure!  The school systems in Europe are quite different than those in the states, so that experience has helped as well this time around. Also, having the experience of living in another country made the choice to come out here less intimidating.

12675270_10103795232006464_37415000_oTCK: What were you most excited about before going abroad?  

JH: I absolutely loved my year abroad in England and, therefore, couldn’t wait to live in another country again – this time for 2.5 years! I think it’s so important to truly experience other cultures, aside from just being a tourist and seeing the sights. There’s something very magical and timeless about living in another country. I remember that living in England was the first time I truly felt like an adult. So far, Italy has had the opposite effect in that I feel younger and more alive than I have in years.

TCK: What were you most afraid of before going?

12674580_10103795230654174_1151154471_nJH: The scariest part about picking up my whole life and moving across the world was the idea that I wouldn’t know anyone where I was going. I had really only met my 13 other classmates through Facebook and some through Skype. Other than that, I knew no one!

TCK: Is the language barrier an issue for you?

JH: I admit that my Italian is not as good as it could be, but I manage to get by. We have an “Italian for Actors” course that gives us exposure to the language. Most of our classes are in English as we have professors from all over the world but some do speak Italian to us. The locals really appreciate when you try to speak Italian and are quite forgiving if you make mistakes so I never feel bad trying out my Italian!

12499430_10103795229765954_137716711_o“Allow yourself the opportunity to truly become part of the culture you’re in. Sightseeing is fun and full of memories but there’s also something wonderful about becoming a regular at your favorite coffee shop or making a tradition of visiting the farmer’s market every Saturday.”

TCK: How do you make rent?  Do you have a job as well as schooling?

JH: Our class schedule is pretty rigorous so we can’t really work while we’re here. Thankfully, because the school is affiliated with an American university we are eligible for Financial Aid. I’m not sure how I’d be able to afford it otherwise!

12380527_10103795229511464_101487790_nTCK: What do you miss the most?  What will you be most excited to have again once you’re back in the states?  

JH: Aside from my family and friends, I really miss the little things. Really good peanut butter is not so easy to find here! My contact solution isn’t available here so I’ve had to change that. So, little things like that, really. And none of it is dire – just a matter of adapting to what’s available. I must admit, though, that I am really excited to go to Target and have a delicious iced coffee when I go back to California to visit in the summer!

12381001_10103795229356774_1464233519_oTCK: How do you keep in touch with your family and friends?

JH: I use a lot of different social media apps to keep in touch with my family and friends. WhatsApp is really popular here in Europe so that’s been great to contact not only friends back home but also throughout Europe. Viber and GoogleHangouts have been the best ways to video chat with people. I also chat a lot through Facebook Messenger with people. The 9 hour time difference can be tough sometimes but we’ve been able to make it work so far!

TCK: What do you want to do after you graduate?  Are you going to stay in Italy?  Move back home?  Somewhere else in Europe/abroad?

12325151_10103795228448594_1204865713_nJH: As much as I miss home, I’d love to stay in Europe and find work out here. Italy is lovely and I could see myself staying here but I would be open to working in other countries as well. I see myself coming back to the states at some point but I’m not sure for how long. The type of work I see myself doing has much more opportunity out here than in the states. But I still have a year and a half to go, so who knows!?

“Do it! Go for it! It’s never too late!”

TCK: How do you think you’ve changed the most since you began your degree?

JH: I’ve been living in Italy for just over 6 months now and I’m amazed by how much it feels like home now. I no longer feel like a tourist in my town. I also feel more at home with myself – I feel like I have been allowed the unique opportunity to develop into the person I’m meant to be without restrictions. I grew quite complacent with the life I was living before moving here. Since then I feel like I’m peeling back layers and getting to the real core of who I am. I think a lot of that is related to the work I’m doing here but I also attribute it to being in a new place and allowing the little insecurities and fears to develop into opportunities to grow. I don’t see myself getting complacent here at all!


Linus Chin-Chen

chicago1Interview conducted on November 7, 2015

Linus is a Taiwanese citizen studying at Boston University, going for a Master’s in Innovation and Technology.

If there was ever a person for whom to use the phrase “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” it’s Linus. Even though it was 10 a.m. on a Saturday, he bounced toward me, eager to get started with our interview. Every time I talk to Linus, he has the biggest smile on his face, ready to take on the day. I always thought it was interesting that he chose his American name to be Linus because although he is definitely a deep intellect at heart, he has such a bigger personality.

I met Linus in the beginning of 2015 at Boston University, where he is currently obtaining his Master’s in Innovation and Technology. Originally from Taiwan, he will have spent two years in the United States when he completes his program. The first time he traveled to the U.S. was in 2006, but most of his travel consisted of European destinations until 2012. He said that traveling to other countries while he was growing up made him feel more comfortable studying abroad for his degree. However, the overall decision to study abroad specifically in the U.S. was a more calculated choice.  

celebrating_school_sports_matchesBE READY TO TRY A NEW WAY OF LIFE

“We can talk [about] a bunch of cultural differences between the place we are from and the U.S. I’m not saying to abandon our own values and traditions to embrace the American ones. Instead, I’m saying to give a chance to try and experience a whole new different way of life. After all, we can always back off if we don’t appreciate after trying. I always believe each way of life is a unique philosophy of the specific community. It could be a pity if we miss any precious experiences and philosophy due to not trying to understand.”

In order for him to get a good job back in Taiwan, he said he had to travel abroad to study.  Taiwan has had an IT industry in Taiwan since the 1980s, but currently it’s not growing like it should, he said. Many Taiwanese obtain their degrees elsewhere and then come back to Taiwan to work. Linus’s father encouraged him to go abroad, as he did, and return to Taiwan with the resources to begin his own business. But Linus explained that it wasn’t that simple.  

New England

In Taiwan, he said, there are many more manufacturing jobs now, but companies are trying to build higher levels of business, such as branding, marketing, and advertising. Companies want to base themselves outside of Taiwan, rather than have the country build the products that are created and marketed elsewhere. He said China is partly contributing to this situation.

Although the economy is growing, albeit slow, China is a force preventing the country from developing more quickly. China, he said, has a lot of funding for new businesses and has stopped Taiwan from entering into free trade agreements with other countries. All of this aside, Linus is hopeful that soon the situation will turn around. China and Taiwan’s leaders met for the first time since 1949 in November 2015. Linus believes this will be the start of an “opening up” of the Taiwanese economy. And, because Taiwan is a more democratic nation, it could become a better safe haven than China for business development.  

snow_was_not_there_in_taiwanBut, before any of this comes to fruition, he still needs the degree and work experience to back up any new business venture in Taiwan. For his higher education, Linus wanted to come to the U.S. because it is the “heart of technology and economics,” as he put it. His ideal professional career would begin in the U.S. after he graduates, perhaps in business planning or project management in the technology sector. Then, ideally he would travel to China to begin a business with contacts he knows from both the U.S. and Taiwan. Because of the funding in China, it would be easier for him to build the business there and then move or expand it into Taiwan. Regardless of the path, he wants to bring his knowledge and business back to Taiwan in order to help his home economy.  

Although there are many top Universities in the U.S., Linus chose Boston because he is a huge Red Sox fan. Even before he moved here, he said that his family watched the games back in Taiwan.  He was pleased to tell me that he has now seen dozens of games in the past year and half with $9, standing-only tickets. Being a part of the crowd at Fenway Park was what he was most excited about after being accepted to BU.  

It_has_to_be_selfie_most_of_the_time_when_travelingDON’T JUDGE, OR AT LEAST DON’T JUMP INTO CONCLUSIONS

“There are so many things confusing for foreigners moving to the U.S. I strongly suggest people to give themselves more time, more than they ever had, to appreciate the differences in the new culture. The stereotypes on every single culture are the first to be broken. Don’t let the stereotype generalize people for us. To feel and think by ourselves, this is why we step out from our country.”

Since moving to the U.S., he has also been to Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City.  Although the “liberty this and liberty that” in Philly and the “too big to leave” size of New York were both impressive, his favorite city (besides Boston, of course) is Chicago.  “People were crazy with the Bulls,” he said, describing his experience. He enjoyed the “artwork in the streets,” as he called it, because it was a visual representation of the people of Chicago.  

phillyTraveling throughout the U.S. and participating in social events, like Red Sox games, helped him conquer his greatest fear of going abroad. He was afraid he wouldn’t meet enough people who were different from himself. He explained that many Taiwanese students who study abroad, specifically in the U.S., don’t break out of their small group of Taiwanese friends. He didn’t want to fall into this comfort zone. So, he essentially came alone to the U.S. and forced himself to speak English as much as possible. In addition, he likes to go to lectures and conferences regarding international relations, environmental issues, and new technologies. He has found that people in those arenas are already more open-minded, so they are more willing to meet and speak to new people. Linus’ strategy to meet new people even includes going to bars and striking up conversations with random people that sit next to him.  

The biggest difference between the U.S. and Taiwan is the teacher-student relationship.  In the U.S., he said, the professors are like your friends and are willing to help you understand the concepts. The students here who speak out in class have the best chance to succeed and get ahead. This, he explained, is very different from classrooms in Taiwan, where speaking out of turn and original opinions are highly discouraged. He definitely had to adapt to the learning style here and is appreciative to all who helped him succeed, especially in the first semester. He remembers that it was during this time that he began to speak in class. He was inspired by a French classmate who was pushing herself to speak English and is still grateful to her and the others who were patient with him while he organized his thoughts in class.  



“Regarding education, the most significant difference between Taiwan and the U.S. is students’ motivation of learning. While American students are given more time and freedom to explore their own interests on different fields of study, students in Taiwan are generally educated in the same way, same time, with the same contents since they began their schooling. The traditional expectations for young, “good students” are to become doctors, lawyers, or engineers when they grow up, which are the more profitable professions in the country. These over-simplified social expectations (or social values) make Taiwanese students have no chance to learn to make their own decisions. Also, they lead to less motivation on learning. When coming to the U.S., the resources are given to those who are self-motivated and “willing to make further use on them.” Taiwanese students need to realize that from here on, nobody is going to suggest a “best route” for them. People need to have their own motivations and passions on the path they chose, just like other American students do.”

chicago2Although he has made friends here in the States, there is one more fear he says affects many who travel abroad from Taiwan to study. He described this as “people with no roots.” When the Taiwanese study abroad for an extended amount of time, he explained that they are like “abandoned kids.” The Taiwanese people think they’re American, and Americans think they’re Taiwanese. Because his family is more open to education abroad, beginning with his father, he doesn’t believe that this will affect him as much as the others he’s met, but it still could to a certain extent. His first roommate in Boston was the full characterization of a person with “no roots.”  He had studied in the U.S. since high school and his family no longer recognized him as being Taiwanese. Linus said his roommate had no sense of belonging and couldn’t retain friendships.

Linus still misses home, but a few months ago his girlfriend Lily was accepted to Tufts and began her studies in Boston, as well. He thinks her transition into American life has been easier because he has been here for a year and it gives him great solace.  

At each Red Sox game, when they raise the flag during the National Anthem, he thinks of the fact that Taiwan still doesn’t have full national sovereignty. He is confident, though, that things will soon change for the better. He wants to be part of that change, but he knows that getting his degree in the U.S. is the first step. And now, with Lily in the picture, each time they throw the first pitch, he has a little piece of home standing by his side.Linus

Interview with Bespoke Traveler

Interview completed on March 11, 2016

Bespoke-icon-ZapfinoWe wanted a name that incorporated the way we travel. We have always thought of travel as a very personal experience, different for everybody regardless of where you go or what you see there. As people who are interested in slow travel, in delving into a culture, and experiencing it through a very intimate lens, we felt that the words “Bespoke” and “Traveler” were the best way to describe how we travel and what we write about. “Bespoke” means “custom-made” or “tailored” and we believe that travelers should be fully involved in the ways in which they experience their destinations. 


Read my interview with Bespoke Traveler!  Check out the links in the interview for more interesting articles on their website.  Make sure you check out their website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube channel!


TCK: How specifically do you think travel changes people?  How has it changed you?

BT: Travel can be a transformative force, if we allow it to be. It changes our perception of ourselves and our world. It can expand our horizons and destroy long held beliefs. For us, it has increased our empathy, helped us learn to roll with the punches, allowed us to communicate beyond language barriers, made us embrace the beautiful complexity of nature as well as ourselves, and taught us to beware of the singular point of view.

cusco-cathedralTCK: Did you have travel experience before you started the organization?

BT: Yes. We have been exploring since we were babes in the woods.

TCK: What are your top three favorite places in the world?  And, why?

BT: Lake Como, Italy for its serene, calming beauty. South Africa for its entanglement of wilderness and multicultural history. Zion National Park, Utah, USA for Angel’s Landing and the Virgin River Narrows trails.

TCK: You have quite an extensive library of published material.  How do you find the time to travel to all these different locations and manage to write/photograph the material?

BT: Stories can be found everywhere. The tricky part is not to trip while jotting them down.

lake_como_hillside_ss1TCK: How do you fund your travel?  Is it mainly through book sales?  Contributions?  Monthly membership?

BT: Our travels are funded through a variety of means: book sales, publication in other magazines and journals, generous contributions from donors, and sponsored collaborations with businesses. For the latter, we always make sure to indicate this when it appears on our website.

TCK: Do you often work with other authors/photographers for content?

BT: We are always open to interesting partnerships. In the past we have hosted guest bloggers on our site who have written about various topics from graffiti art to New Orleans and Algarve, Portugal.


TCK: What are your greatest challenges with maintaining your content and keeping the material fresh?

BT: Adjusting the writing schedule to our travel itineraries and having the patience to root out a meaningful story are probably the greatest challenges.

TCK: Do you experience writer’s block?

BT: They have pills for that now, don’t they?  Just Kidding.

death_valley_devil_playground_ssTCK: You’ve received several awards for your work.  Which meant the most to you and why?

BT: Awards are wonderful to receive, but the most meaningful aspect of our work is when a reader tells us how inspiring our stories were to their personal lives.


TCK: What does travel mean for you?

BT: Travel is an opportunity to be curious. Travel does not only have to mean taking a plane to a far off destination or going on a “Round The World” expedition, or trekking through uninhabitable regions. One can do a lot of exploring in one’s own backyard and discover the extraordinary in the ordinary.

TCK: What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own travel-based website?

BT: Our best advice would be to lay a good foundation for the website first. It is better to know what your unique voice and perspective on travel is before-hand, so that the website can best reflect that.