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ASU tourism professor says risk plays a role in Americans' interest in traveling to Cuba

Residents and tourists walk a street near the Cuban capital.

Tourists and residents of Havana walk near the Cuban capital. Photo courtesy of Pedro Szekely (

March 09, 2018

What roles do risk and social media play in the desire of Americans to travel to Cuba? A great deal, said Evan Jordan, an assistant professor of tourism in the School of Community Resources and Development at Arizona State University. Jordan spoke with Paul Atkinson about his study and why Americans are willing to visit a country with "rough edges." Click above to listen or see below for full text of the interview.

Question: Why the interest in Cuba?

Jordan: So we saw this article, and we said, "You know what, this is really interesting." This is a tourism destination that Americans, anyways, hadn't been able to go to for a very long time while the rest of the world is still going there. But the unique thing about the U.S. and the Caribbean is the U.S. is the number-one outbound tourism market to every Caribbean tourism destination. Except Cuba, because we weren't allowed to go there, except for if you were routed through other countries. And so we saw this happening, and we said this is a really interesting opportunity to see what are the types of people that are going to want to go to Cuba as it becomes more open.

Q: You use the words “rough edges” to describe Cuba in your study.

Jordan: You know, it's a very unique tourism destination in that respect, in that it does have that sort of frozen-in-time feel to it. And that has been the major attraction for people going there over the past several years. There's not a lot of other tourism destinations that are like that. The vast majority of places on earth, people from the U.S. are free to go to. The other ones, that they're not allowed to, they probably don't really want to because of things like war zones.

Q: But this is a different type of travel, right? I mean I can’t just book a hotel and wander the streets of Havana can I?

Jordan: As of now you still have travel restrictions to Cuba. You need to be a part of 12 different categories to go there. One is if you're going on business, another is for education purposes. Another one is for philanthropy, if you're going to volunteer or donate your time. And that's actually how this cruise ship ended up going to Cuba. They are specifically going to volunteer their time in Cuba for humanitarian efforts. We've also had the resumption of direct flights between the U.S. and Cuba over the last several years. And so you're starting to see much more travel back and forth between the two countries.

Q: So what did you find out in your study?

Jordan: Well, we did a survey of people in the United States and we asked them, "What are your attitudes towards Cuba? How do you feel about Cuba?" And then we also asked them, "Would you like to visit Cuba within the next year? Would you like to visit Cuba within five years? And would you like to visit Cuba within 10 years?" And we actually found something really interesting. We found that people who thought Cuba was risky or scary or dangerous were actually more likely to want to go there within one year than people who thought it was attractive or exciting, or you know, an interesting place to visit, which we really did not expect.

Q: I don't study tourism, but does that make sense?

Jordan: It doesn't. Until we started to think about it in terms of traveler types. So, there was a market researcher — one of the foundational market researchers in the tourism industry. His name was Stanley Plog, and he created a typology of tourists that said the vast majority of tourists fall in the middle of the spectrum and are willing to tolerate some risks, some uncomfortable things on their trips. But on either end, you have a small portion of people who would like to be uncomfortable, who are comfortable being uncomfortable. And you have a small portion of people who really like to be comfortable; they don't want to have anything different than it is when they're at home.

And so, when we started to think about it in that context, the people who liked to be uncomfortable, we're thinking that it's actually those people who are saying, "Even though we think it's risky or dangerous, we want to go there actually because of that." And that's probably because it hasn't been opened up as a tourism destination yet really to the United States.

And so, there's this period, what could be a small time period, that we're looking at where it hasn't been opened. It is a little bit more open, but it hasn't been totally opened to mass tourists coming from the United States. And we're thinking that it is those types of tourists — they originally were called allocentrics, now they're called venturers — those people who are interested in going before the destination changes.

Q: You research didn't stop there. You also examined the role social media plays. Tell me about that.

Jordan: So, another focus of this study we asked people about whether or not that posting social media posts from certain places would influence whether they would like to go there. And I think we probably all experienced this as you bring open your social media in the morning and you see your friends or your family who are traveling to awesome places and you get a little bit jealous. Right? It's that, "Man, I wish I could go to that destination." And so, Cuba is actually one of those destinations that carries a great deal of prestige with it because there are very few number of people who have been there, especially from the United States. And so, as a destination, that's something that they may be able to capitalize on.

So, these are some of those sort of marketing implications that we're thinking of specifically for organizations within Cuba. Like who should they be going for if they want to bring in travelers from the United States? It could be people who are interested in being adventurous, getting out of their comfort zone, seeing something that's unique — that is a unique experience in the world before it becomes open to other things. And so, these are areas where we make recommendations for those types of organizations. Those are the people that you probably want to go for now; and then if things become more open in the future and the destination changes, then you're going to want to shift your marketing focus on other groups of people.

Q: You found age and travel experience plays a role. Can you explain that?

Jordan: So the types of people that are going to want to go to a place also changes over time, and actually travelers change over time as you gain more travel experience, as you go to different destinations, as you age. These things change where you're going to want to go, how you're going to want to go there, and what types of destinations you're looking for. So, I'd say for the average traveler, if there's someplace that you've always thought, "You know, I don't really want to go that place that doesn't hold any appeal to me." You know you may want to reconsider as time moves on as the destination maybe becomes more open or becomes different or becomes something that you're suddenly more interested in. You know, these are reasons for people to re-evaluate where they want to travel, when they want to travel there, and how they want to do it.

The article is titled “Predictors of Intention to Travel to Cuba across Three Time Horizons: An Application of the Theory of Planned Behavior.” It’s published in the Journal of Travel Research by Evan Jordan and co-authors Bynum Boley and Whitney Knowllenberg.  

Answers have been edited for clarity and length.