Today I am more passionate about the power of travel than any time in my long career of helping people experience new places around the world. That excitement stems from a survey of Friendly Planet travelers who have recently visited Cuba under our people-to-people program. The results dramatically underscore how travel, more than any other endeavor, opens peoples’ minds, hearts, and souls, and allows them to form new, authentic opinions about the world.
The survey showed that 81.3 percent of those who traveled to Cuba with Friendly Planet would return again if given the chance. That is the highest intended return rate we have ever seen here at Friendly Planet. The reasons are many and fascinating.
Our survey revealed that people-to-people programs are transformational events in the lives of our travelers. They go to Cuba not for luxury or creature comforts (Cuban travel infrastructure is still lacking), but rather to experience the people, culture, and arts; connect with Cubans on their terms, under the conditions they currently find themselves; and learn about Cuba now, before it’s forever changed by the outside world.
A trip to Cuba changes minds and opinions, allowing travelers to set aside politics and connect personally with the Cuban people as they go about their daily lives, struggling economically, but achieving much through their art and culture. In some ways, it represents a step back in time, before cell phones and the Internet, when people shared their lives through music, storytelling, and simple small talk within their homes and public plazas. It is this setting that shatters expectations and connects travelers directly with the Cuban people.
According to our survey, the surprises are many. For example, 78.1 percent of our travelers were surprised by how open and friendly the Cuban people were toward American visitors. Some 67.6 percent said that upon their return, they could more easily separate politics from culture and appreciate the people for who they are!
And isn’t that the real intent of traveling the world and meeting other people? Isn’t our real drive to learn to appreciate the world directly, without filter or bias? It’s easy to form opinions from a distance, even the mere 90 miles that separate America from the Cuban shore. But it’s much more real and much more accurate to shelve our own opinions until we spend time with a people, immersed in their culture.
Make no doubts about it. These travelers were honest about their experiences. They saw both the good and the bad of the politics and economics of the Cuban experience. But they also witnessed the nobility of the people. Their pride in their heritage. Their intelligence and wit. In fact, the most valuable findings of our survey had nothing to do with statistics and everything to do with heartfelt sentiments. Here are just four firsthand accounts from Friendly Planet’s Cuba travelers:
“You will take away so much more than you can imagine from your trip. After you leave Cuba, ask yourself the question ‘How can I make a difference for the Cuban people?’ My answer would be: Tell everyone you can that you, an American, have been to Cuba and it is time that more Americans go and see … this country and change our attitude.” – Jean Pluchar, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in April 2013.
“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. Cuba was nothing like the 51 other countries we have visited in the past.” – Robin Hannigan, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in January 2013.
“It provided a more personal understanding of the people, culture, and political structure than you can ever experience in books or TV documentaries.” – Drew Nixon, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in November 2013.
“This was the most meaningful trip I have been on. You will not come back as the person you were.” – Cynthia Richmond, traveler on a people-to-people program with Friendly Planet in December 2012.
From my involvement with the people-to-people Cuba program, my own love of travel has been renewed and refreshed. I am reminded that travel opens vistas, encourages understanding and acceptance, and reminds me that people are basically the same everywhere.
Our people-to-people programs to Cuba are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to gain a deep and lasting appreciation for an island nation where people care about each other, are amazingly creative, are able to withstand great challenges, and treasure family and love visitors. No doubt Cuba will evolve, sooner or later, to meet the realities of our world. But for now, at this moment in time, Cuba offers the rarest of chances to open one’s mind, one’s perceptions, and one’s heart and soul to forever be transformed.
We plan to publish a number of the survey’s findings here on our blog and through the media. So check back frequently to learn more about how a trip to Cuba will forever change your life!