In our tour operator survey, we were only interested in quantity. Which tour operators do agents book most? As the results reflect, operators booked most also sell the most popular destinations.

We tried to include smaller operators that sell interesting programs and destinations by including the category niche. But it would be hard to get critical mass in our survey if a niche wasnt a popular niche, and a popular niche begins to teeter towards the oxymoronic.

There is one form of niche that we knew from the start would never show up in the survey: Travel to countries in the headlines because of political tensions and pariah states. (Pariah, that is, to the U.S. government.)

No one publishes a Visit pariah states with us! brochure, but operators do offer programs that go everywhere that its legal for U.S. citizens to travel.

One operator that goes to countries that others tend to leave alone because they are far off the beaten track or because of political considerations is Absolute Asia and its sister divisions, Absolute Africa and Absolute South Pacific. In fact, those companies made their name by moving quickly to assemble tours to countries just as they opened up to Americans.

Ken Fish, Absolute Asias president and owner, recently came back from a 30-day, around-the-world trip that stopped in, among other countries, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Nepal. Upon his return, he called me to promote these destinations, each of which carries some serious U.S. State Dept. travel warnings.

About Iran he said: I was impressed not only with the cultural richness of the country, but the warmth of the people. It may sound like a cliche, but it really is a part of their tradition to be welcoming.

Syria: I was there right after the assassination [of the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Harriri, for which Syria was being blamed in some quarters]. It was an amazing place to be then -- politics were discussed quite openly.

Lebanon: I was going by Martyrs Square during the opposition rallies. My taxi driver insisted that I be allowed to go on the stage and stand next to the speakers -- this was on the day [Syrian President Hafez] Assad said he would withdraw from the country. It was incredible. I saw, up close, how hopeful the people were.

Nepal: They have a serious political situation, serious social and economic problems. But that doesnt necessarily affect traveler safety. Despite what you read in the press and State Dept. warnings, I found it to be perfectly safe.

It may be safe to go there, but is it the right thing to do? Tourist dollars can support regimes that have ghastly political agendas.

Its Fishs position that people have to make their own decisions, but I think travel is a positive thing, a force for progress, he said.

Unlike Fish, I have no profit motive for seeing travel to pariah states in that light, but I nonetheless agree. Standing on the speakers platform was not only exciting for Fish, but it was a good thing for the Lebanese to see an American on stage supporting a move toward greater autonomy.

How strong can the influence of a foreign visitor be? Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was born in Prague. Her father was a Czech diplomat. She recalls developing a powerful yearning for freedom and democracy through exposure to foreign guests who would sit around her familys dinner table.

Whatever strength a dictatorial regime gains from Western currencies, I suspect its more than undermined by the strength of an open exchange of ideas.

Operators facilitating these exchanges will never make it onto our list of who sells the most tour packages, but deserve recognition. Often, theyre the ones that help open the doors to permit the larger companies on the list to walk through.

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