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.
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
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
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
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
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.