t takes a huge capital investment to start an airline or a cruise line, but most tour operations have modest beginnings. Some of the biggest names today began with one leased coach and the founder behind the wheel or leading the groups.

The Taucks, the Kassners, the Perillos, the Mantegazzas -- each saw an opportunity, planted a seed and nurtured it into something tremendous.

I recently was talking with a large European tour operator who said his business was going gangbusters and that pent-up demand was overcoming concerns about the weak dollar. But he also said the surge in travel is not being experienced universally. He suspected that residual nervousness about traveling abroad is routing a disproportionate amount of traffic to the largest companies, which have been able to spend the money to build brands the public knows and trusts, and that those who haven't aren't as well positioned to take advantage of the recovery.

I'm pleased for those who are seeing investments in brand equity pay off, but I can't help but feel concern for operators like Jimmy Ntintili. I met Jimmy last month while wandering the aisles of ITB, the monster worldwide trade show held each March in Berlin.

Jimmy had a small booth along a wall in a hall that was dominated by a massive pavilion set up by South Africa. He sat in a chair in front of a large photo of a motorcoach painted with a colorful mural with African motifs, watching buyers go in and out of the pavilion. Few of them even glanced up to see the words above the photograph, "Jimmy's Face to Face Tours."

Nineteen years ago, Jimmy saw an opportunity and planted a seed. He's still nurturing it, and although it has grown well beyond the dream stage, he still faces an uphill battle.

Jimmy Ntintili is the father of escorted tours to Soweto, the black township in Johannesburg that for years was the symbol of the inequities of apartheid. When he looked at Soweto in 1985, he saw what everyone else saw -- despair, hopelessness, schools in deplorable condition. But he also something no one else saw -- a tourist attraction. It had no museums or inspiring monuments, but it had a unique culture, cuisines and atmosphere.

"I had traveled widely in the U.S. and Europe, and my strongest memories involved people. If I met nice people somewhere, it was a nice town. If I were telling my friends about Montana, for instance, I would talk about a bar I stopped in, and the people I met there -- I wouldn't go on and on about 'Big Sky Country.' "

His people-focused approach, he said, requires a great deal of flexibility, both on his part and on the part of his passengers. "I can't just put a tape into a player and let it run while I have a driver follow a certain route. There has never been a written script because I don't always know for sure what's going to happen. Soweto is a living, ever-changing place.

"Also, I ask my guests, 'What do you want to do? Do you want to play golf? I'll set something up, and you'll play with some young black kids. And they'll whup your ass, by the way.' "

He said competition increased significantly after apartheid was abolished. "Even the big, white-run companies are doing it now. And they're always stealing my guides," he said, more amused than complaining. "But they don't give it the personal attention I do.

"The whole thing is to bring people to my country," he said. He calls his guests "my tourists" and says any success he has had is due to "a good understanding of their needs." Almost everything Jimmy Ntintili says sounds familiar -- he is speaking the language of the founders of large successful tour operators. I hear the echoes of Perillo, Tauck, Kassner and Mantegazza.

I honestly don't know enough about Jimmy Ntintili's tours to recommend his company. But I do know that niche players keep the industry vibrant. If 2004 is a year of recovery for the big brands, I hope it's also a year when seeds can be planted and saplings nurtured.


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