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Tours improve perceptions between U.S., Cuba

| Monday, Feb. 3, 2014, 5:51 p.m.

HAVANA — When President Obama reinstated “people-to-people” travel to Cuba in 2011, the idea was that visiting Americans would act as cultural ambassadors as the United States was constantly demonized in the island's official media.

Two-and-a-half years later, a survey shared exclusively with The Associated Press suggests the trips are not only improving Cubans' views of Americans. They are changing travelers' opinions of the Caribbean nation for the better, and dimming their view of Washington policies that have long sought to pressure Cuba's Communist leaders.

“I think U.S.-Cuban relations should be open. People should be talking to each other. People should be sharing,” said Ellen Landsberger, a 62-year-old New York obstetrician who recently visited on a people-to-people tour.

There's surely significant self-selection among people-to-people travelers; supporters of a hard-line policy against Cuba are unlikely to consider such a tour. And the people who run the trips tend to be more or less sympathetic toward Cuba, or at least to the idea of easing or lifting the 52-year-old embargo, which potentially could be a boon to their business.

Still, the results of the multiple-choice survey by Friendly Planet Travel, a company based in suburban Philadelphia that promotes legal tours of Cuba, are eye-catching.

Before travel, the most prevalent view of Raul Castro's government was “a repressive Communist regime that stifles individuality and creativity,” 48 percent of respondents said. That fell to 19 percent because of their visits, and the most-popular view, held by 30 percent of respondents, became the slightly more charitable “a failing government that is destined to fall.”

Most striking, 88 percent said the experience made them more likely than before to support ending the embargo against Cuba.

Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, said visitors are surprised at how hard it is to find many goods, even something as basic as an adhesive bandage.

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