y roommate in college had a deck of Tarot cards, and every now and then he'd shuffle them up and spread them out on a table in front of him. I didn't believe in fortune-telling, but I would watch.

In the entire deck there was no more harrowing image to me than the card labeled The Tower. It was illustrated in horrific detail, showing a tall structure, its top aflame, with people falling headfirst from it.

It was not, he said at the time, a "bad" card. It illustrated destruction and death, but was ultimately symbolic only of dramatic change -- the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. It did not imply whether the new direction would be good or bad.

I am not suggesting that the events of Sept. 11 can be viewed with philosophical calm, as simply the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. For people who lost loved ones on the airplanes, in the World Trade Center or at the Pentagon, what has been lost can never be replaced. Never.

Though our grief over the loss of human life was enormous, most of us had to, almost immediately, turn to our businesses, businesses that had suddenly entered a new cycle. Some industries experienced only temporary blips, but everyone connected with the travel industry had been dealt The Tower.

On the first anniversary of Sept. 11, we find that years of strong growth by airlines have been replaced by turmoil. Year-over-year increases in overseas travel have been replaced by steep declines. Travel agency airline base commissions are gone -- in some instances replaced by new revenue streams, in other instances replaced by new careers.

Yet there also are travel agents who have said that, painful as the process has been, they are better positioned for growth today than they were a year ago.

We have spoken to cruise line executives who weathered the post-Sept. 11 storm and feel reassured that they're in a business that has a bright future.

We have noted the aggressive expansion of a chain of Caribbean resorts that bounced back quickly after Sept. 11.

In business, balance sheets tell us who the winners and losers are. But when it comes to Sept. 11, important gains and losses of an ethereal nature also occurred. What we have all won is a bit of perspective on what's truly important in the grander scheme of things. What we all may have lost, however, is the belief that those same important things are safe and secure.

No one can read what the future holds for our industry, not with cards, not with trend lines on a chart. We can feel reasonably sure that companies will continue to start up, close, reinvent themselves or simply make incremental steps forward or back. Just as they did before Sept. 11.

On the individual level, less is certain. It's hard to know for sure what constitutes a step forward. All we know is that we can never go back.

• • •

The Tower was dealt to us without warning. But there is another card being offered to us as a nation -- the possibility of a war with Iraq. Whether we take it or refuse, it will have a tremendous impact on our lives and businesses. Though we don't know, as yet, how to play the card, we do know that the stakes are high.

In the roundtable discussion among industry leaders that Travel Weekly hosted in New York on Aug. 22, participants agreed that there were two things that would be catastrophic to the travel industry.

The first would be another act of terror on the scale of the events on Sept. 11 or worse.

The second would be a war with Iraq.

Our president says the second is necessary to prevent the first. Some of his critics say the latter will increase the likelihood of the former.

As I mentioned above, it's hard to know for sure what constitutes a step forward.

• • •

Cards are associated with chance and fate. But as you read today's Page 1 story on the state of the industry, you'll see example after example of people whose situation changed quite suddenly a year ago, who assessed where they were and then acted to regain control of their lives and businesses. Some succeeded, some are struggling, but all continue to improve what had been a harsh and unexpected turn of events.

Uncertainty seems to define the cycle we're in. But our ability to act in uncertain times defines us as people.

The travel industry, perhaps because of its trials over the past year, is better positioned to make the most of whatever hand is dealt to it in the future.


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