In a first-of-its-kind excursion, two groups of University of Southern Maine students will depart Tuesday for Cuba in hopes of learning more about the communist island nation’s tourism and health care industries.
The students, in both undergraduate and graduate programs in tourism or nursing, will also experience life aboard a wooden boat, the schooner Harvey Gamage, where they will sleep and eat most of their meals during their time studying Cuba’s growing tourism industry and its well-regarded system of national health care.
The Maine students will both share and gather information as they explore how easing political tensions and lifting travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba are already affecting the island – which has essentially been off-limits to most Americans for the last 50 years, said Tracy Michaud-Stutzman, who chairs USM’s Tourism and Hospitality department.
She said Maine, long known as “Vacationland,” has a lot to offer other places breaking into or expanding their tourism offerings.
“We’ve been doing tourism pretty well for about 200 years in Maine,” Michaud-Stutzman said Monday. “People look to us as a model for sustainability.”
But Cuba will also present a case study as a place expected to struggle with what could be an overwhelming demand that threatens much of what makes the island an attractive destination in the first place. It’s an issue Maine’s tourism industry grapples with as well at times, Michaud-Stutzman said.
“This is a very unique moment in time for Cuba,” she said.
It’s a notion that’s hardly lost on the students participating in the trip, which will last two to three weeks – with some members of the group returning on Jan. 8 and others returning on Jan. 15. Fourteen nursing students and four tourism students are going on the trip.
“I’m thrilled, I’m excited, I’m shocked, I’m a little scared,” said Darius Iranpour, 47, of South Portland.
Iranpour, who is working on a master’s degree in tourism and hospitality, said the opportunity to see how Cuba is preparing for a growing tourism industry is a unique opportunity.
Iranpour, who is focused on how places can grow their tourism trades in ways that provide sustainable community development, said the street-level information the students will gather from Cubans will be invaluable. Iranpour said everything from politics to ethics will be in his sights as he meets with Cubans and visits some of the less-traveled parts of the island.
“What’s great about Cuba is it is at a starting point, basically zero,” Iranpour said. “My angle is about sustainable development and the policies behind it.”
Iranpour said while Cubans have long hosted Canadian and European tourists, normalized relations with the U.S. mean a large new market of travelers they may not be fully ready for.
He said developing contacts and hopefully long-term relationships with Cuban people, including officials, is another goal of the trip. He said part of his interest lies in how Cuba can expand its tourism offerings without suffering from overdevelopment.
“It’s at such a point right now where it’s almost pristine, so what are they going to do to protect that and still be able to draw tourism to their country and keep it pristine – that’s an interesting challenge,” Iranpour said.
Iranpour said the Cuba trip will add to work he and other USM students will do when they travel to Iceland in June to look at similar issues around sustainable development of the tourism trade for that island nation. Like Cuba, Iceland in the last decade has also witnessed explosive growth in the numbers of people wanting to visit for its scenic beauty and unusual cultural offerings.
The USM Cuba trip is in partnership with Ocean Passages, a Portland-based LLC, which operates the tall ship Harvey Gamage from its home port of Cienfuegos Harbor, on the Caribbean Sea side of the island. Students will travel by ship to the Isle of Youth and to the islands of the Gardens of the Queen, also in the Caribbean on the southern side of Cuba.
On the health care side of things, nursing students such as Shawn Sullivan, who is a Biddeford firefighter-paramedic, are going to learn as much as they can from a health care system that’s heralded for its universal coverage of citizens and its low-cost delivery of high-quality care.
“They have very limited issues when it comes to health care, compared to a lot of industrialized nations such as ourselves have, so it’s going to be us learning from them, which is a total transfer of thought process,” said Sullivan, 46.
A trip that had been planned to the Dominican Republic – part of an ongoing effort by USM to help that impoverished Caribbean nation with health care – had to be canceled because of unsafe conditions for students there. Instead, some of the nursing students who would have gone there have signed on to the Cuba trip.
Sullivan said USM’s confidence and flexibility in the new trip is encouraging to him. In some ways it’s starting the way the university’s relationship with the Dominican Republic started, with a good idea by a handful of people that turned into a long-term productive relationship.
In a key way, Sullivan expects the Cuba trip will be different.
“Rather than outreach, it’s us learning from them,” Sullivan said. “As citizens of the U.S., we are so used to teaching other people. But we need to be humble in this thought process where this is not us teaching them, this is us learning from them.”