A recent survey by Friendly Planet of clients who had visited Cuba under the tour operator’s people-to-people program revealed that the vast majority found the experience to have been transformative and want to do it again.
Of the 423 respondents, 81.3% said they would return to Cuba if given the chance.
“This is the highest level of interest in revisiting a location that I have ever seen for any of our tours,” said Friendly Planet President Peggy Goldman.
And she noted that appetite for the product had reached extreme levels “despite the fact that the people-to-people Cuba itineraries are challenging in terms of accommodations and rigor of activity. The days are busy and choreographed, participation in all activities is mandatory and some of the accommodations and facilities are not up to the usual standards.”
But the survey also suggested that the accommodations and itineraries were not high priorities among clients. Close to 75% said they had taken the trip simply because they were curious about life in a country off limits to most Americans.
The survey results underscore the program’s value in helping Americans and Cubans exchange ideas, share cultural experiences and learn from one another.
“Travelers on these programs are not going for luxury or comfort,” Goldman said. “They are going to interact and immerse themselves in a completely different culture.”
The Obama administration reinstated the people-to-people category of travel to Cuba in early 2011, following an eight-year hiatus, enabling any American to visit Cuba legally if escorted by a licensed company.
Playing by strict rules
Friendly Planet received its license in September 2011 from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the agency that oversees, administers and enforces the programs’ guidelines.
One of those guidelines is that the itineraries comply fully with U.S. rules barring sun-and-sand tourism.
Since resuming the program in 2011, Goldman said, “We’ve taken more than 3,000 travelers to Cuba. … We always did a quick survey upon their return to gauge their comments on the trip. This time we went deeper, asking respondents to choose as many options as applied to them in the survey’s 10 multiple-response questions.”
One clear trend was a shift in attitude before and after the trip.
Nearly half said that before the trip, they viewed the Cuban government as a repressive communist regime that stifled individuality and creativity. However, only 19% still held that opinion after their return.
Following their introduction to the artistic, entrepreneurial and cultural communities they encountered, 88% said the experience had made them more likely to support ending the 50-year-old embargo.
Friendly Planet travelers reported being surprised by how open and friendly the Cuban people were to American visitors. Close to 70% said that after returning, they could more easily separate politics from culture.
“This illustrates for us that the people-to-people experience opens minds, expands horizons and allows people to look past politics and into the hearts and souls of individuals,” Goldman said.
The most valuable findings in the survey had less to do with data and much more to do with personal sentiments, as exemplified by anonymous comments from several respondents:
• “You will take away so much more than you can imagine. After you leave Cuba, ask yourself the question: ‘How can I make a difference for the Cuban people?’ My answer would be to tell everyone that you, an American, have been to Cuba, and it’s time that more Americans go and see this country and change our attitude.”
• “It provided a more personal understanding of the people, culture and political structure than you can ever experience in books or TV documentaries.”
• “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.”
“It is noteworthy to know how these programs are viewed, particularly since there is a lot of discussion in the U.S. about the purpose and scope of these programs,” she said. “There are misconceptions that the programs are excuses for Americans to party on the Cuban beaches and dance to Cuban music.”
Nothing could be further from the truth, she said.
“Not only are our American travelers learning about life in Cuba, but Cubans are learning about us,” she said.
Goldman also pointed out that Americans support nascent entrepreneurs, Cuba’s first foray into an open-market economy, through the people-to-people visits.
“We are the customers who visit the paladars [privately owned restaurants] and enjoy meals there, to the benefit of the private owners,” she said.
Friendly Planet will introduce more itineraries starting in October, but it will not lengthen the existing offerings due to the high cost of the trips that results from programming and bureaucracy costs.
“We want to make sure that our Cuba programs remain as affordable as possible,” Goldman said.
The company is considering new activities, based on survey comments. These include a possible visit to Vinales, a small town west of Havana, and a stay in Santiago de Cuba on the island’s southeastern coast.
Friendly Planet plans to offer a fam trip this spring, Goldman said, because “I want agents to be able to see Cuba’s infrastructure and what these programs offer their clients.”