Posted on: February 11, 2013
Life, death, transformation and tourism
I'm devoting a large portion of this week's column to reprint parts of an earlier "From the Window Seat" that ran four years ago. I have not changed the title, but I have abridged the story a bit, added a few details and made room for an addendum. I recognize that what follows falls woefully short of truly capturing the life of Alex Harris, a bold visionary in our industry who passed away last week at the age of 91.
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Of the various subgenres of business literature -- how-to, case studies, theory, history -- the most difficult to pull off is an autobiography. The drama of competition and business life cycles can be riveting, but the skills one needs to create and grow an enterprise don't necessarily include self-knowledge or writing ability. Without these attributes, an entrepreneur's recounting of her or his own tale too often becomes a series of self-congratulatory recollections that fail to inspire, instruct or engage.
There are exceptions, of course, and I recently finished reading one that rises well above others: "Breaking Borders" by Alexander Harris (iUniverse, 2008).
Harris is well known in the industry as the longtime chairman of General Tours. I'd met him several times and knew the rough outline of his life: He had fled Nazi-occupied Poland as a teenager and had spent some time in a Soviet gulag. He later worked during the Cold War to package tours that took travelers behind the Iron Curtain.
His book has all the elements of a great novel, perhaps several great novels: A family torn apart and facing the twin evils of Hitler and Stalin. Betrayal, escape, capture, interrogation, wrongful and cruel imprisonment. Bigotry, love, sex, death. Gunfights in bars. Assassination plots. Unspeakable loss, war, valor and heroism. The promise of a life rebuilt in America, exploitation, family drama and, ultimately, success.
Had he written only about the history of General Tours, he would have been writing about an interesting company that blazed trails in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during a time when it was dangerous to risk the appearance of being soft on communism.
But the story of General Tours takes on added dimension when viewed through the prism of Harris' life. What he was able to accomplish with General Tours is all the more remarkable because of his personal narrative. He reached out to countries where his most painful memories were formed, and his use of tourism to confront his own demons found a large-scale parallel in his efforts to build bridges between people East and West who eyed one another as enemies.
The motif of Harris' life is transformation. After General Tours was well-established, Harris founded the American Tourism Society, which sought to transform countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East through the power of travel and tourism. A key component involved transforming the lives of young people who live in developing countries by introducing them to careers in tourism. Profits from the sale of his book go to a foundation dedicated to furthering this particular goal.
I mentioned that the problem with most business autobiographies is that they often fail to inspire, instruct or engage. "Breaking Borders," however, succeeds on all three levels. Though it is harrowing at times, Harris' story is ultimately one of overcoming adversity. It shows the cyclical nature of life and how a spirit that refuses to be crushed has the opportunity to prevail and do great things.
It is available on Amazon.com.
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Addendum: The morning after Alex died, by coincidence, I had scheduled a breakfast meeting with Jana Busch and Erika Keeroja, two entrepreneurial Estonians whose business in many ways reflects Alex's life's work. The receptive portion of their travel company is very much molded in the spirit of his West-meets-East world view, and they were in New York to meet with travel agents and promote their inbound operation, Estonia in Style.
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Busch and Keeroja were not yet born when Alex started General Tours, and it turns out they had never heard of him. But to say they owe him a debt of gratitude would be to single them out unfairly; it would be difficult to find anyone working in the travel industry in half the world's countries who does not bear a similar debt.
Alex Harris' style, energy, insight, audacity, intellect, warmth, creativity and humor will be keenly missed.
Email Arnie Weissmann at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.