Charlie Funk
Charlie Funk

I came of age in the '60s, at a time when almost anyone could find a cause to support and even go out and demonstrate, sometimes with risk, to affirm and confirm their belief in that cause. I confess I only did so once. Well, maybe twice.

Over the years, my career morphed from being an engineer and manager to heading the travel agency that my wife, Sherrie, started in our basement in 1981. I mentioned in an earlier column ("Finally experiencing Cuba via the Adonia," Oct. 3) that I had a fascination with Cuba. Likewise, I had and still have a fascination with the former Soviet Union, including Russia and those countries that were once Soviet satellites.

So it was with great expectations that I took a cruise to Scandinavia and Russia in August 2001. Two full days in St. Petersburg, Russia, didn't seem enough, but it was what it was. A call in Tallinn, Estonia, seemed a wasted day that might otherwise have been given over to St. Petersburg.

On the first excursion in St. Petersburg, we stopped at a memorial to the battle cruiser Aurora. Just outside the exhibit, a merchant was selling memorabilia that included a traditional Russian fur hat and a soldier's military cap with 20 enameled pins, both for $25.

Score! What a deal!

The second day, after I had seen as many cathedrals as I could stand, I visited an open-air market across from the latest church stop and found the same two hats for $15. Bummer!

But in talking with the merchant, I learned that for $63,000 each, I could buy a MiG-29 front-line fighter or a T-70 main battle tank. The catch was that both were in Ukraine and it was up to me to get them out. An entrepreneurial spirit seemed to be at work.

Conversations with our tour guides revealed a variety of thoughts and emotions. Generally, St. Petersburg in 2001 was still in economic distress, the infrastructure was weak and its magnificent structures and attractions showed signs of neglect and inadequate maintenance. There was an ambiance of sadness.

A measure of the despair that we observed on so many faces came when one of our guides waxed nostalgic for a return to the stability of communism and the Soviet government. Even though it meant relinquishing the few freedoms garnered since the collapse of the Soviet Union, she seemed not to be alone in being willing to do so to have a greater sense of security and stability.

The ship called the next day in Tallinn, and the contrast could not have been more diametrically opposite.

Everything was clean, the people were friendly and there was a general sense of happiness and calm. In conversations, I found that the population had generally decided it was time, and incumbent on them, to hitch up their stockings and get on with recovery. My sense was that they were doing it well in Tallinn, and that tourism and tourist spending was a major driver in that recovery.

Fast forward 15 years and our cruise to Cuba. I went out of my way to have conversations with our guides in Cuba in an effort to gauge sentiment toward the U.S. and about their situation in general. It was eye-opening.

Pre-revolutionary citizens were of the attitude "It is what it is" for the most part. Those born just prior to the revolution up until the Special Period, around 1989 ("Sampling Cuba from the Adonia," Oct. 10), while not openly resentful of U.S. citizens being in Cuba, just felt different when we conversed with them.

Those born after the Special Period have never known anything other than economic crisis and hard times.

A common thread, especially with those in the 18-to-30 age group, was how happy they were to see U.S. tourists in their country. As a group they easily differentiate between tourists and governmental policy. That said, there was unhappiness that economic sanctions were still in place.

The one thing I did not hear from anyone was a desire to return to a time when their country was controlled by outsiders.

There are those who will argue, even to the point of demonstration, that the U.S. should never again embrace normalized governmental or people-to-people relations with Cuba as long as there is a repressive government in place that has eliminated many, if not most, personal freedoms and worse.

Yet those same people have no compunctions about traveling to Russia, China or other countries that have been equally if not more repressive. I struggle to reconcile those disparate views.

Others will point out that the standard of living in Cuba is that of a developing country. Of course, when measured against the U.S., that is undoubtedly the case. However, the better metric is to compare and contrast Cuba with other Caribbean countries.

Living conditions in Belize, Honduras and other nations are similar in many ways to those in Cuba. The major differences between Cuba and these other nations are to be found in educational level and access to medical care. By most impartial analyses, Cuba leads the way in literacy and quality of health care.

My purpose here is not to champion one political dogma or economic philosophy over another but to offer an objective comparison of like cultures.

We, as travel professionals, can be voices for good in improving relations with other nations and in serving when the opportunities arise.

Tourism Cares is a philanthropic organization through which travel professionals can give back to the community via service in a variety of ways. In 2007, while attending a Vacation.com conference in New Orleans, Sherrie and a number of other agents selected a cemetery that had been flooded, with a goal to clean as many grave markers as possible in the time allocated. It was arduous, dirty, tiring work.

The point is that there was a civic need, travel agents could be of service, the opportunity arose and a good number of those available stepped up and got involved in a worthwhile project.

And there are other opportunities around us to serve in a multitude of ways.

As I write this on Dec. 15, there are still fires burning in Sevier County, Tenn., at Chimney Top 2, that is still 94% contained.

Early hopes that there would be no casualties in the blazes that ravaged Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge were dashed, and at last count, 14 lives have been lost. Additionally, 2,317 structures have been damaged or destroyed by the fires.

As devastating as these fires have been, Gatlinburg reopened on Dec. 9. Dollywood and businesses in Pigeon Forge and Sevierville (Dolly Parton's hometown) are open, including Wilderness at the Smokies and the many outlet stores.

The residents of the area have demonstrated resilience in the past and this challenge is no different.

Tourism is a $2 billion annual industry in Sevier County. Hundreds of workers in the many travel-related businesses need to get back to work.

If you're a meeting planner, look at the many facilities in Sevier County.

If you're a consortium, plan to host national or regional meetings for your members in the area.

If you're a travel professional and have clients looking for a great vacation, take a look at the area.

It's like this...

We are ambassadors for the travel industry. We have an opportunity, an obligation actually, to do all that we can to build greater understanding and cooperation with others all over the world through tourism.

If legislative action is needed to make that happen, be proactive and reach out to those politicians who can make a difference and let them know how important tourism is and how much you support it.

This is not the time to go backward by reversing initiatives of the last few months.

Similarly, we can be agents for good through philanthropic activities and by proactively promoting areas that are dependent on tourism.

The choice is ours to get involved and be a participant in life or a spectator. I've made my choice. If you haven't made yours, maybe it's time.

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