Erasing borders of the mind

International travel is growing, opening up new views of humanity. Cuba represents one new destination ready to reward the curious traveler.

Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters
Teenagers walk on the street in Havana, Cuba, Dec. 21. From bus drivers to ballet dancers, many Cubans are already imagining a more prosperous future after the United States said it will put an end to 50 years of conflict with the communist-run island.

Despite President Obama’s new effort to warm relations with Cuba, tourism from the US to that Caribbean island nation is still banned, a policy that only Congress can change.

But the publicity surrounding Mr. Obama’s move to reestablish full diplomatic relations has put a spotlight on the possibility of travel to Cuba. Already, some 500,000 Americans visit each year.

While most US travelers are Cuban Americans seeing relatives, a significant number have no personal ties to Cuba. They wish only to experience its cultural and natural attractions.

Today, by joining educational tour groups, Americans can hop on a charter flight to the island to learn about subjects from Cuban baseball to architecture, to study dance or photography, or to watch birds or tour scenic parks.

Traveling to sit and sun on a beach is not yet legal. But these "tours with a purpose," which allow travelers to meet local people and learn about their lives and interests, often make for the most rewarding travel experiences anyway.

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry,” poet Maya Angelou once wrote, “but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

The need to keep Internet access open around the world has received deserved publicity. It is an important vehicle for ideas and information to swiftly travel and take root in new places.

But traveling in person beyond one’s own borders presents another kind of learning, one that can add an even deeper human connection.

Volunteer tourism, or "voluntourism," has become more and more popular with travelers of all ages, from high school and college students to retirees. Instead of relaxing, these visitors chose to serve, working on projects that improve housing, education, the environment, or other areas of need.

Worldwide tourism is on pace to set a new record in 2014, according to partial year figures gathered by UNWTO, the United Nations agency that promotes world travel. International tourism through the first 10 months of 2014 rose 5 percent over 2013, UNWTO reports, well above predicted levels. By the end of the year about 1.1 billion people will have traveled across international borders. By 2030, UNWTO projects, that figure will rise to 1.8 billion per year.

“These are remarkable results considering that different parts of the world continue to face significant geopolitical and health challenges,” says UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai, noting also that “the global economic recovery remains rather fragile and uneven.”

At any given time some countries are unwise places to visit, even with the best of intentions. But Cuba represents how other places, once closed off, are always opening up.

What a trip abroad will yield isn’t always apparent beforehand. “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” wrote philosopher Martin Buber.

The willingness to visit new places can open new insights and stir a new appreciation for how people are all the same in many important ways – yet also each uniquely and beautifully individual.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

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