Arnie WeissmannSho Dozono, travel agent, wants to take you to Phuket, Thailand. Very soon. In fact, hes leaving in less than two weeks, and he hopes hell be bringing along an industry representative from every state in the country.

His trip has a dual goal. He wants the industry to see for itself how that resort island is functioning. And he wants the people of the island to see that the U.S. travel industry is supportive, aware of their needs and willing to assist.

Dozono, president of Azumano Travel in Portland, Ore., received a donation of $25,000 from Nick Stanley, the honorary consulate general of Thailand in Portland, to help defray costs.

Dozono said he read a column I wrote a few weeks ago (Rebuilding normalcy, Jan. 10). In it, I wrote that the travel industry was in a unique position to assist tsunami survivors to recover from the economic aftershocks caused by a traveling public that believes the entire Indian Ocean coastline is a disaster area.

Also in the column, I mentioned how previously, within weeks of 9/11, Dozono had brought a group of 900 local business leaders to New York. At that time, he wanted to demonstrate solidarity between Portlanders and New Yorkers and felt the trip would have important symbolic impact for the travelers and hosts. Indeed, the trip was reported in national media as a hopeful sign that things were returning to normal.

Dozono generously credits that column with inspiring him to act again, but I suspect he must have already been seeking a way to bring meaningful assistance to tsunami survivors.

The natural reaction for most of us is to want to do something, anything that will bring some measure of relief, he wrote to me the day after the column appeared. And we want do it now because of the unbearable sense of urgency.

In the following days, he crafted what he believes is an appropriate way for the industry to help. In addition to bringing a group of business leaders from Portland, hes also launching a national, industrywide Flight of Friendship to Phuket that would be part fact-finding mission, part fam and part demonstration of solidarity.

The 9/11 trip, he said, had similarities but also important differences. At that time, patriotism was a motivator, as was the need to help people get over their fear of flying, he said. But looking back, in the end it was the people-to-people connections that had the biggest impact.

In particular, Dozono is concerned with the plight of industry workers -- the waiters in the resorts, the maids, the owners of small shops. These are the people who are really hit the hardest economically -- and they wont recover until tourism returns.

Dozono worries that the publics perception that the entire region is a disaster zone is further fueled by industry ignorance and points to a poll of travel agents that appeared in USA Today last week indicating 54% of travel agents say to avoid the area, 17% counsel to delay trips and 15% advise canceling booked trips.

Eleven percent said take the trip but purchase travel insurance, and only 3% said they were encouraging travelers to go on the basis that the destinations need tourism dollars.

He hopes the Flight of Friendship will change that mind-set. Phuket was chosen as its destination because its the best-known and largest resort area affected. Sixty percent of the islands resort hotels are up and running.

The Flight of Friendship has the support of ASTA, the Pacific Asia Travel Association, the government of Thailand, the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Hilton International.

Participants will arrive in Bangkok on Feb. 7 and 8 and visit Phuket and Krabi before returning to the U.S. on the 14th.

In Thailand, a delegation from the group will be briefed by U.S. Ambassador Ralph (Skip) Boyce, and the whole group will meet with the governor of Phuket and local business leaders.

Dozono blocked 75 seats on Northwest Airlines from Portland and 50 seats on Thai Airways from Los Angeles for local business leaders. He will use the donation he has received to pick up the land costs, transfers and intracountry air for travel professionals.

We did not ask for special deals, he said. We werent looking for discounts from the people were trying to help.

He is encouraging travel agents to work with carriers that depart from their home cities to, at the very least, obtain an AD75 fare for their air.

He cautions that, depending upon the size of the response, the funding he has received will not necessarily be enough to help subsidize all who want to go.

Those interested in more details or signing up should visit www.flightoffriendship.com.

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