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February 21, 2017

USM students learn about ecotourism in Cuba

Courtesy / Bob Steneck
Courtesy / Bob Steneck
Students from the University of Southern Maine man the sails of the Maine-built tall ship Harvey Gamage during their recent 20-day course off Cuba learning about ecotourism.

A group of students from the University of Southern Maine have completed an innovative, team-taught 20-day course off Cuba to learn how to develop a tourism strategy that included sustainable initiatives regarding Cuba's pristine coral reefs and the hospitality training needs of its residents.

Led by Tracy Michaud Stutzman of USM's Department of Tourism and Hospitality, Cuba tourism expert Jeffrey Boutwell and University of Maine oceanographer Bob Steneck, the students snorkeled on a remote coral reef and sailed on the Maine-built tall ship Harvey Gamage off Cuba as part of their "Navigating Change in Cuba: Sustainable Maritime Environments and Tourism Development" course.

Four students were enrolled in the six-credit tourism class and 14 nursing majors joined the excursion to learn about Cuba's health care system. Students toured Havana, a sugar plantation, a botanical garden and a museum and interviewed health care providers and community stakeholders at University of Cienfuegos.

They also interviewed residents, learned about the island nation's history, politics and culture and studied marine conservation.

"Overall, this was a life experience for everyone," said Steneck, a professor in the UMaine School of Marine Sciences. "This is the beginning of an ambitious experiential academic program in Cuba. Although the island country is less than 100 miles from the United States, it is a completely different world. All of the students embraced the pioneering aspect of this program and brought incredible enthusiasm to the program."

Stutzman said faculty and students appreciated the opportunities to talk with Cubans and visit a nation that, until diplomatic relations were recently restored, had been closed off from Americans for more than 50 years.

It was fascinating, she said, to experience the beauty of Cuba, the generosity of the people and the excitement of fledgling entrepreneurs.

"To be in that place at this time was unique," said Stutzman.

The 131-foot-tall schooner Harvey Gamage was home base, as well as a classroom and research vessel for students and staff from Dec. 27 to Jan. 15. The schooner — ported in Cienfuegos harbor on Cuba's southern coast during the course — was built in 1973 at Gamage Shipyard in South Bristol about a decade after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

They submitted their final tourism development reports and journal reflections on Feb. 1.

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