Travel - A Catalyst for Transforming the Relationship Between Cuba and America

The U.S. today has an historic opportunity to put aside half a century of division and build a new future with one of its closest neighbors by ending the ban on travel to Cuba.

President Barack Obama took a bold first step by calling for a 'new beginning' and by making it easier for Cuban Americans to visit family in Cuba. Soon afterwards Raul Castro, the new Cuban leader, announced he is ready to talk. This represents a remarkable shift in a relationship previously marked by mutual antagonism.

I applaud these developments, but am convinced that American foreign policy would benefit by advancing more boldly and giving all U.S. citizens the freedom to travel to Cuba.

Two new leaders reaching out to each other to bridge historic differences represents an unprecedented opportunity. We should seize it.

The interaction between people from countries with differing perspectives can be a powerful force for positive change and understanding. In 1971 the U.S. State Department lifted the ban on travel to China. Later that year the U.S. ping-pong team made the first visit to China by a U.S. sports team since 1949. A year later President Nixon took a few momentous steps off an airplane in Beijing and talked about "the week that changed the world."

These early moves laid the groundwork for turning a closed, hostile relationship into the most important economic and diplomatic relationship in the world today. Does this mean China and the U.S. always see eye to eye? Of course not. However the increased levels of travel between China and America have fostered a level of understanding unimaginable 35 years ago.

Our experience with China leads me to believe that America should follow a similar path of engagement with Cuba.

Americans support such a policy. With Fidel Castro no longer officially in power, the Zogby/Inter-American Dialogue Survey last year showed that over two-thirds of Americans believe that all U.S. citizens should be allowed to travel to Cuba. U.S. citizens are already voting with their feet, visiting Cuba via a third country such as Canada, Mexico or a neighboring Caribbean island. This is despite the challenges in getting to Cuba that stem from the ban prohibiting U.S. travel companies such as Orbitz from facilitating their journey.

Beyond the politics, we all stand to gain significantly through renewed cultural exchange.

Havana was once a premier international destination; elegant hotels such as the Hotel Nacional hosted distinguished guests including Frank Sinatra and Winston Churchill. Havana's splendid architecture is some of the most eclectic and diverse in the world, its music is world-renowned, and it has a vibrant artistic community. Americans should once again have the opportunity to take in Cuba's sights, to explore its history, to be entranced by the rhythms of its salsa and son.

I was able to experience Cuba during a visit 1997 before I moved to the U.S., and was struck by the warmth and friendliness of the Cuban people. Visiting Cuba would provide Americans with a vibrant cultural and historical experience and provide a fascinating contrast to life in the United States. Cubans would benefit from having the opportunity to meet with American travelers and learn about the U.S.

President Obama has said "we must learn from history, but we can't be trapped by it." We at Orbitz agree. This is why we are launching a new campaign, at www.OpenCuba.org, which offers ordinary Americans an opportunity to make their voice heard and call on policy leaders to open travel to Cuba for all Americans.

Why can't all of us visit this alluring neighbor and play a part in transforming the relationship between two countries?

Americans have the freedom to travel to every other country in the world, even those with whose leadership the U.S. has significant differences. That freedom provides an opportunity for U.S. citizens to experience the world and share the message of what America has to offer the world. Isn't it time to bring that message to Cuba?