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Monday, January 26, 2015

Cuba: More than Jazz and Cigars

One month after President Obama ordered the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the US Treasury and Commerce departments issued new, more lenient rules outlining how Americans can legally travel to the country. While access to Cuba still isn’t wide-open, these new regulations allow Americans to visit more easily than at any time in the last fifty years, which is very exciting.
With all of this excitement comes a very necessary examination of the facts. As it has become easier, there are still a few issues- it still isn’t as simple as packing your bags, grabbing your passport and getting on a flight. Here are a few things that all ardent travelers should know before they begin planning their trip to Cuba:

As an American, if you wish to visit Cuba for one of the twelve purposes laid out by the United States, you can now do so without having to apply for a license.

The twelve categories of legal travel include visits to relatives, academic programs (students must be receiving academic credits), professional research, people-to-people trips, religious or journalism related activities, and participation in sporting events/ performances.

In the past, permission was granted on a case-by-case basis. It was a process that could take months, and could be rejected for any number of reasons. Now, travelers will be able to use boxes on a checklist to describe the nature of their trip, as provided by customs. They will still be required to present a full itinerary of their scheduled travel plans to prove their selected category of travel. Travelers should also note that they are required to save all of their receipts from travel transactions and expenses for five years upon returning to the United States.

General tourism is still banned by the embargo.

People-to-people trips” is a phrase that has been flying around the media lately as a suggested means to travel to Cuba. What does it really mean, and what is involved in arranging this? In the most basic sense, these are highly regulated tour groups. People-to-people trips serve as educational programs, so they fall into one of the twelve categories of travel. It gives the traveler the opportunity to interact with locals and learn about the culture of the island. Under old regulations, they were approved more easily, as the traveler’s itinerary was laid out by a Cuban resident. These trips can be expensive ($4,000 USD per week is the norm), but include accommodations, flights, tours and lectures.

Air travel is also changing to accommodate these new travel standards. Flights to Cuba had previously been operated by licensed charter companies via Miami (they will continue to do so), but there are talks about re-opening air-traffic routes between New York and Havana at some point in the future.

New air travel regulations state that any American commercial airline can operate flights to Cuba, and so far, American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta have shown the most interest in starting these programs. Aviation authorities have estimated, though, that it could take up to a year to negotiate agreements between the two countries’ air controllers. What is the alternative for immediate travel? Eager travelers can get a non-American flight through a third country to gain access to Cuba- like through Mexico or Panama.

Since tourism in Cuba has been restricted for so long, visitors might notice a lack of high-end hotels. As the number of visitors is expected to increase significantly in the next few years, the ministry of tourism in Cuba has begun investing time and money into improving their available accommodations. It is said that there are presently about 60,000 hotel rooms throughout the country, with many of them not available because they are in need of renovations or repairs. Travel experts estimate that Cuba should consider adding at least 150,000 more rooms to prepare for the surge of new visitors.

If you do intend to travel to Cuba somewhat soon, an alternative to these high-end hotels is to make a reservation at a bed and breakfast. Also known as casas particulares, these alternative accommodations will provide the visitor with a chance to interact with locals on a level much deeper than at a regular hotel. There are plenty of them located throughout Havana and other larger cities.

Before these new regulations, Americans visiting Cuba were not permitted to use any sort of credit or debit card to pay for expenses while on their trip. Now, Americans don’t have to pay for their entire trip in cash, as they can use their cards to cover tabs. Great deal for Americans, who don’t have to feel unsafe about carrying so much cash, and also great for Cuban businesses, as visitors are more likely to spend more with access to “virtual funds”, and pay for it later.

In the past, there was a cap that Americans were only permitted to spend $188 USD per day while in Cuba (including hotels, meals, etc.) which has also been lifted. The traveler might want to return with a keepsake of some sort. New rules state that Americans are permitted to bring back up to $400 USD worth of souvenirs, including $100 USD worth of cigars and tobacco.

Travelers should be aware that American cell phones don’t work in Cuba, and that internet and Wi-Fi is rare. The White House has commented that Internet penetration rates on the island are some of the lowest in the world, and that improved telecommunications is on the list of new policy goals.

"...spots blend old with the new, as well
as locals with the visitors."
What does Cuba have to offer the traveler?
If you are willing to be flexible and make arrangements in line with the new regulations, Cuba has so much to offer the traveler.
For the nature lover, Cuba has more than 300 beaches, providing access to both the Atlantic and Caribbean. White sand, uncrowded surf and lots of water adventure- like scuba diving, snorkeling, and swimming with dolphins- is available. For the land lovers, there are caves, mountains and numerous hiking trails to be explored, as well as birdwatching tours and beautiful scenery provided by the landscape.

Music and art are an important part of Cuban culture. Live music can be found throughout many bars at just about any time of day. Famous for jazz, salsa and merengue, music is everywhere. Art lovers will also find a variety of genres of work- from mosaics and tile work, to painting and charcoal drawings. Collections range from traditional to modern.
History lovers will enjoy the old buildings and cars that are found throughout the cities of Cuba. Visitors will notice that there are an abundance of American cars from the 1950’s. After Fidel Castro became president in 1959, he required that Cubans seek government permission to purchase a new foreign car, so these American classics are common.  Architecture also provides the visitor with a perspective on Cuban history, with nine UNESCO heritage sites throughout the island. Military bases and forts remain preserved for travelers to see firsthand.

Lastly, the cuisine of Cuba is something for all visitors to enjoy. Paladares, or privately-owned family restaurants are popular, and again provide the visitor with an intimate look at Cuban culture. Often run out of the chef’s home, these unique dining spots blend the old with the new, as well as the locals with the visitors.
For those travelers who have had Cuba on their “bucket list” for too long, these new regulations may provide them the opportunity to finally make this trip a reality. This is an exciting time to attempt to gain access to the island, as both Cubans and Americans are actively engaged in discussions about relations between the two countries. Hospitality is a value in Cuban culture, despite Cuban-American relations. The Cuban people may be as eager to teach Americans about their culture and heritage as Americans are eager to be on the island- a win for both parties involved.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Mosquito?

Lately, when you do a brief scan of the news, it seems like the entire world is plagued by acts of terrorism, violence and unrest. The media portrays the world as being in a state of chaos- full of uncertainty and danger- sometimes to the point of making it seem as though it is a risk to even go outside- as terrorists are on every corner and every city around the globe. While yes, terrorists are everywhere, what kind of threat do they really pose to the average traveler?
According to the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism, in 2013, there were nearly 18,000 deaths globally as result of terror attacks, with more than one-third of them occurring in Iraq. How many vacations, business trips and travel opportunities have been cancelled or postponed because of the imminent threat of terrorism?
How do we make choices about our travel plans when there is a need to evaluate the level of risk involved? In examining how individuals act, feel and think about risk and their decision to travel/not travel, we have to take a look at the psychology of risk. This includes their perception of hazard, how they make decisions, what they deem “safe”, and how they rate the value of the reward of travel (as in, risk over reward).
One aspect of how we as humans gauge risk comes back to the rhetoric and language surrounding the potential danger.
The shifting nature of terrorism and the semantics used to describe it have changed the way travelers think of global violence. In an article recently published by Al Jazeera, author Michael Pizzi describes a “new model of terror”, one that is evolving and fearful, and discusses the acceleration of “hard-to-detect lone wolf or wolf pack attacks”.
In traditional folklore, the wolf is the predator- it is strongly associated with danger and darkness, evil and sneaky attacks. In general, it is a fearful creature that is pinned against man, always with malicious intentions. This kind of imagery is extremely powerful, and creates an emotive response almost immediately. Interestingly, in most cultures, the symbolism of the wolf is consistent. 
At the same time, the American Mosquito Control Association estimates that between 700,000 and 1,000,000 people each year are killed by the diseases that mosquitoes carry (ranging from Dengue Fever to Malaria).
A wolf sounds more threatening than a little mosquito that we can crush between our fingertips. When in reality, we should be way more fearful of the mosquito than the “wolf”.
"...yet how many mosquitoes were given
the power to stop us from traveling?"

We have the ability to shift our perspective and change the risk-response by educating ourselves about our destinations and preparing for the unexpected. One way to do this is to do a pre-travel assessment, which involves reviewing the issues that can affect the traveler while on their trip, and creating plans of action for such incidents. Collecting information on the current events and happenings of your destination, registering with the embassy, talking to your family and friends about your itinerary- these are all great means to travel smart and travel safe. Travelers can also partner with their Travel Assistance provider to plan ahead, should an incident requiring an evacuation take place. These companies can provide DNA storage, country briefings, and other pre-travel safety measures can be taken so that you can travel at ease.
In the big picture, terrorism is not something to take lightly or ignore, as yes, it is a threat. However, from a statistical perspective, it also isn’t a great enough reason to avoid travel altogether. Mosquitoes are present in nearly every country on Earth, and can survive in harsh environments, including arctic and volcanic regions. How many mosquitoes were given the power to stop us from traveling? Probably not too many.


Monday, January 12, 2015

Big Globe, Small Talk: Intercultural Communication

Communication is the means by which people initiate, maintain and end their relationships with others. It is a process that requires the active participation of two or more people who are simultaneously sending and receiving messages. Communication is shaped by culture, as it is bound by cultural contexts.
As we become a smaller world, you will notice that you don’t have to travel all that far to experience the need for being culturally competent. Globalization has played a role in this: fast travel, international media and the internet have connected people from all over the world. Interacting with people from different cultures and countries is impossible to avoid.

Intercultural communication requires us not only to recognize and appreciate cultural differences, but also to develop skills to effectively interact with others from different cultural backgrounds. As Americans, we have the advantage to excel in intercultural communication, yet often fall short in doing so. We have unlimited resources to learn about the people, places and customs of our travel destinations, it is just a matter of accepting the challenge to use these tools.

Ideas for Communicating Effectively when Traveling:
Be aware of your own culture and style of communication. Self-awareness can help in assessing many issues that may arise in attempting to connect with those around you. Are you a direct or indirect communicator? What kind of nonverbal cues do you use that you might not even realize you are making? How strong is the eye-contact you are making? Culturally, these are all relevant parts of communication that will determine how effectively your message is received.

Try to listen and observe rather than speak and make assumptions. As Americans, we tend to talk over others, raise our voices when our words aren’t received the way we want them to be, and listen only to answer a question. While this style of communication might work amongst fellow Americans, it probably won’t get you very far when interacting with softer, less abrasive communicators. In being observant, one can witness the gestures, cues and rhythms in which natives interact. How close do they stand? Do they use touch? Do their eyes meet, or do they look away?
Assumptions can be a hindrance to not only you, the traveler, but also the recipient of your message. One of the most common assumptions in intercultural communication is that “the message I am sending is not the message being received”. This isn’t always true, and can be prevented if the traveler is culturally sensitive and prepares ahead of time for the problems they may encounter. Intercultural communication doesn’t have to be a clash of communication styles- in fact, this situation is very avoidable, with the proper research and preparation. We often assume “worst-case-scenarios” in environments and amongst cultures that are unfamiliar. Being flexible, not taking things too personally, and using pre-determined strategies to communicate effectively will help to reduce stress in these tense moments.

Often subconsciously, we humans tend to classify or categorize others based on their race, sex, age or occupation. We tend to see others not as individuals, but rather, as parts of these larger groups. This can cause us to lose opportunities to connect with others and gain so much valuable information. For example- you’re traveling in Spain, looking for something to do. You pass an older man walking down the street. You might think, “Oh, he’s just an old man- what would he know about the new nightclubs in Madrid?” when in reality, he could be the owner of one! If you make assumptions because of these groupings and don’t attempt to communicate, you could miss a world of insight and connections.
There are many benefits to intercultural communication. With every destination comes a world of knowledge to be gained about the culture and traditions of that place. The educational aspect of this part of travel will be valuable in many aspects of your journey, and overall, can contribute to making your trip a positive experience.

You may be exposed to “hidden gems” in your destination that only the locals know about. That, in itself, is a risk worth taking for any travel lover. As with the “old man” example above, that traveler could have been given a VIP access pass to the club of their dreams, but only because they chose to communicate.
Locals and natives of the place you are visiting are likely to be more welcoming of you, the visitor, if you make an attempt to communicate as equals and communicate in the style that they do. While sometimes awkward, the gesture is generally appreciated. In making the attempt, people will generally be empathetic to your struggles and offer to help as they can. Hopefully, you can both get a laugh out of your failures, too. While often frustrating, the challenges of intercultural communication can prove to be great opportunities for personal growth.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Small Risk, Big Place: How Misinformation Damaged African Tourism

Tourism has started to stretch to more exotic parts of the world, especially in recent years. A great example of this was seen in 2012, when the Sub-Saharan region of Africa welcomed more than 33 million visitors. The World Tourism Organization’s Global Travel Report anticipated a rise in these numbers- with a projected growth of 6% in 2013, and an additional 6% in 2014. However, because of global health scares, tourism to not only this part of Africa, but all of Africa, was crippled.
Africa, as a whole, is the second largest continent, and is also the second most populous continent. Comprised of 54 fully-recognized sovereign states with nine territories and two independent states, the cultures, languages, terrain, climates and ecology vary tremendously. The land mass is larger than Europe, the United States and China combined.

Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) took the lives of thousands of Africans in 2014, and the deadly virus continues to affect parts of Western Africa- particularly in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) still warns travelers to avoid non-essential travel to these countries.

We learned that EVD can only be transmitted through direct contact with an infected person or animal- through broken skin or mucus membranes with blood or body fluids, contaminated needles or an infected fruit bat or primate. Ebola is not spread through the air, in water or in food. It is not spread through casual contact, and there is no evidence to show that mosquitoes can carry or transmit the disease. The people with the highest risk of contracting EVD are the healthcare workers tasked with caring for those infected with Ebola, and the “burial boys” responsible for burying those who perished from the virus.

The CDC does not recommend that travelers avoid visiting other countries or regions of Africa, and even stated that “Ebola is very low risk for most travelers”.

"...a number of African travel companies have reported
their business down as much as 70% this year."
With this knowledge, how did the world manage to become so afraid that they nearly stopped traveling to non-infected parts of Africa? A number of African travel companies have reported their business down as much as 70% this year, with thousands of tourists postponing or cancelling their planned travel to many countries throughout Africa. Business and leisure travelers have tended to view Africa as a single country that needs to be avoided since Ebola was declared a global health threat in August of 2014, despite the fact that the virus was not present in a majority of the continent in the latest outbreak.
So, why does fear have so much power over travel and risk in Africa, but not in other parts of the world?

Geographical misconceptions are leading many travelers to avoid Africa completely. “Many people still look at Africa as a homogeneous country rather than a massive and not as the second largest continent”, a tour operator from a said. Safaris are generally conducted in Eastern and Southern Africa- at times, thousands of miles from anywhere that EVD has been found. A safari guide from Tanzania said “…you would not cancel your vacation in Paris because of conflicts in the Ukraine. If something was happening in Alaska, you would still go on your trip to New York.” This captures the vast spaces between Ebola-stricken countries and where safaris are generally taking place.

With so much of Africa’s economy based on tourism, the implications of this trend is devastating. Economists with the World Bank have stated that in addition to the loss of revenue from tourism, billions of dollars have been lost in disruptions in trading and supply chains.
A new year means new adventures. Ebola serves as a great reminder to all travelers to do the research- learn about your destination, and stay current with news and events happening there. Thousands of people are missing out on the trip of a lifetime this year because of fear and inaccurate information.

For more information on Ebola, visit the CDC’s Resource Guide. To learn about Vetted’s EVD referral handling procedures, see our press release from October 2014.