A survey of 423 Americans who have traveled to Cuba as part of U.S.-licensed cultural exchange programs (known as people-to-people programs) shows that visiting the island nation dramatically transforms their opinions about Cuba, its people and U.S. policy toward that country. The survey was conducted by my company, Friendly Planet Travel, as a way to gauge the impact of the people-to-people program, which we have been a part of since 2011. These U.S.-licensed cultural exchange programs were offered by the U.S. government in January 2011 after a hiatus of eight years, and since then many thousands of Americans have chosen to experience the culture, art and people of Cuba as part of these exchanges.
While we knew early on from post-tour surveys that our travelers were enjoying their Cuban experiences, we were still surprised by our survey results, which decisively demonstrated that these travel programs have made a major impact in the way travelers view Cuba and its people. Most startlingly, the survey showed that 81.3 percent of those who traveled to Cuba on a people-to-people program would return again if given the chance. That is the highest intended return rate I have ever seen over my 33 years in the travel industry.
The reasons are many and fascinating. Unlike a traditional vacation, these people-to-people programs directly connect Americans with the Cuban people in a genuine and authentic manner. As one traveler summed it up, "Appreciate the people for who they are, and don't judge. Be willing to talk with the people on the street. They are people, just like us, trying to raise families and make a living. I met people, not a government."
It's that direct connection that has proven so transformative and provides the avenue to set aside politics and appreciate people and culture. That ability to suspend preconceived notions brings a new appreciation for the country and its culture. Americans who return from Cuba do so with hearts and minds changed forever. In fact, prior to traveling to Cuba, 47.8 percent of respondents labeled the Cuban government as "a repressive communist regime that stifles individuality and creativity." Yet after visiting the country, only 19 percent of respondents still held those views.
Why? Because the creative spirit is alive and well in Cuba, and in a place with so little materialism, the arts take on new importance. In Cuba, everyone seems to be an artist, eager to paint, play, sculpt and create. Some 265 museums and 120 art galleries dot the country, which houses 70 theatres and 46 art schools in addition to numerous local community cultural centers and music clubs. Americans who have traveled to Cuba over the past two and a half years have actively engaged with artists and performers. For example, they have visited the private studio of Eduardo "Choco" Roca, one of Cuba's talented independent artists, listened to the rehearsals of Vocal Leo, the interpretive choral musical group, and discussed the arts with students at the renowned Santa Clara Music and Performing Arts School.
That's not to say that Cuba is without major systemic problems. People-to-people programs show Cuba for what it is, with all of its shortcomings. This is a country that has suffered economically, politically and otherwise under Castro's regime, and that suffering has been compounded by the U.S. embargo. Antique American cars, while quaint, are a blistering symbol of just how outdated and outmoded the Cuban economy is. And U.S. travelers know it, see it and learn from it. One on hand, it illustrates Cuban resilience. On the other, it raises sympathies to a level that forces us to want to help. As one traveler advised, "Take plenty of medical and educational supplies to give as gifts. My entire suitcase was filled with medical supplies that I received from my family doctor. I also brought more than 700 Bic razors." Another surveyed traveler urged Americans to bring school supplies to educators who have little to nothing to support their teaching. Many, paralyzed by government regulations that forbid necessary tools such as photocopiers, leave teachers to hand-copy and administer basic exams.
That compassion says a lot, especially in the high-cost world of travel, where most vacations are taken either for the scenery, the relaxation or the luxury and are centered on a destination that we drop into only as visitors, not as participants or witnesses. We view these destinations through the windows of our hotels, tour buses and airplanes. But not in Cuba. Rather, as the survey showed, Americans are visiting Cuba with their hearts and minds wide open. Everything is transparent -- the good and the bad, the art and the suffering. Visitors understand the irony of an outdated communist regime that is unable to serve its own people on so many levels, yet it still guarantees literacy and health care, and somehow, it even nurtures a creative, energetic and innovative spirit that fosters, surprising as it might seem, entrepreneurship.
Thanks in part to the new flow of American tourists on these people-to-people programs, Cuban entrepreneurs have opened their homes as restaurants, their studios as art galleries and much more. Considering how the Castro government had extinguished individual opportunity in so many ways, what our travelers have found in Cuba is truly amazing. It's a real traveler's dream come true and a chance to experience what travel is all about.
For now, the real Cuba prevails, waiting for the American traveler to experience it before sanctions fall and this unique place changes forever. Because once mass tourism returns to Cuba, it will no longer be the same place. Perhaps this survey respondent said it best:
"We felt like our trip to Cuba was an incredible gift. ... There was so much to see and do and absorb, and the people-to-people interactions were what made it so special. Life changing. Never to be forgotten."