Arnie WeissmannLike comic book heroes, businesses, too, have origin stories. And, similarly, the genesis of a business often explains a lot about why it is as it is.

I enjoy listening to these start-up tales: how it came about that an agent ended up specializing in, say, the wine region of South Africa, or why a hotelier opened a property in what was, at the time, the middle of nowhere.

I've often found that businesses in the travel industry are inspired by the founder's wish to live in a specific place or to spend more time enjoying a specific activity or pursuing a certain lifestyle.

I recently came across a very interesting travel business that has its roots in the friendship of two girls named Andrea who went to the same high school in Danville, Calif. Andrea Ross and Andrea Marshall shared not only first names, but a desire to make an impact on the world and, to quote Ross, to have "adventure in our lives."

After college, Ross and her new husband, Brandon, took an extended backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. They loved almost everything about the region, and were strongly drawn to the people and cultures.

Shortly afterward, they settled in England, where Ross had relatives, but they could not resist Asia's pull. They decided to relocate to Cambodia.

Meanwhile, high school friend Andrea Marshall was pursuing a doctorate in marine biology. Upon receiving her advanced degree, she moved to Mozambique to study manta rays.

Back in Cambodia, the Rosses set themselves up as travel agents, hoteliers and tour operators under the name Journeys Within Tour Company & Boutique Hotel. Initially they'd not only book trips for Westerners but would serve as their personal guides.

In 2008, Marshall, while diving off the coast of Mozambique, discovered a previously unknown species of giant ray, one of the largest species of any kind to be discovered in the previous 50 years.

And back in Southeast Asia, the Rosses' business grew. They hired additional guides and expanded into neighboring countries. (Today they host about 1,000 passengers a year, mostly in groups of two or three.)

Wanting to give back to the Cambodians they lived among, the Rosses founded a nonprofit, Journeys Within Our Community, which to date has provided 4,000 Cambodians with access to clean drinking water.

Marshall, in the meantime, founded the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Megafauna in Mozambique to support her continuing research, and she added a tour component, Ray of Hope Expeditions, in which she personally takes divers on educational tours to see the rays.

I will pause here to mention that all this was achieved before the Andreas were 12 years out of high school.

Both Andreas have achieved wide recognition for their work. Marshall was the subject of a BBC documentary titled "Andrea: Queen of Mantas," and Ross received both a designation from Conde Nast Traveler as a recommended "travel specialist" and recognition for her nonprofit work.

When Marshall was going to Myanmar to dive among rays there recently, the friends arranged to reunite in Phuket, Thailand. While in Phuket, they hatched a plan to work on a tour that would blend their experiences and passions.

They decided to lead a group of about a dozen travelers to Myanmar, with Ross handling a land-based tour of that country (including a visit to an orphanage supported by Journeys Within). Following that, guests would move to a dive boat for a week on the Burma Banks, with Marshall guiding them among one of the world's less-visited, but ray-abundant reefs, providing expert insight during nightly shipboard discussions. Additionally, they will meet the Moken people who live in the archipelago.

The departure is scheduled for Feb. 25 through March 9.

It's a tour with quite an original origin story, one of the best I've heard. The itinerary reflects so much of what is inspiring about the travel industry: authentic passion for a destination, genuine interest in local people, exhilarating and mind-expanding experiences and, if Conde Nast has judged correctly, a reasonable expectation for delivery on the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

The Andreas' various projects seem to reflect dedication, hard work and fidelity to their early shared idealistic values. While a comic hero's origin story provides a rationale for the superhuman, the Ross-Marshall origin story provides the background for wonderful expressions of humanity.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.


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