Robert Drumm is the CEO of Alexander+Roberts. He has been in the travel business for nearly 40 years and has been an owner of the 76-year-old tour company, formerly General Tours, since 1992. He also serves on the board of the USTOA.
As we pondered the impact of our oldest living U.S. president on the world and the travel industry, I recall a special journey that my company, General Tours (now Alexander+Roberts), provided for him and the Carter Center in 1998.
The story actually begins much earlier, in the swirling chaos of Budapest as World War II waned. Fascist forces were fleeing west as Russian communist troops engulfed the city.
A chance encounter with an American officer by a Hungarian military figure led to entrusting to the American the 1,000-year-old Crown of St. Stephen, used for centuries in the coronation of Hungarian monarchs.
It was brought to Fort Knox, where it would remain for the next 33 years as a symbol of Hungarian nationhood through the Cold War and communist control of that country. However, during its years of exile, which included the 1956 Hungarian Revolt, the crown increasingly became burdened by political and diplomatic controversy in both the United States and Hungary.
That is, until President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977.
Determined to build bridges with Eastern Europe and to undermine its ties to the Soviet Union but also mindful of the fury that might occur in the U.S. if he were seen to be providing assistance to the Hungarian Communist Party, President Carter sent secretary of state Cyrus Vance to Budapest in 1978 to return the crown "from the American people to the Hungarian people." By diplomatic arrangement, the communist head of government did not participate in the ceremony, and the crown was put on display in Budapest's picturesque Hungarian Parliament, where it has remained ever since.
As a result of the crown's return, relations between Hungary and the U.S. began to thaw. The communist country was granted Most Favored Nation status, and trade increased between the two nations. With the closer relationship, the Carter administration was able to secure permission for Hungarian Jews to freely emigrate to Israel and America.
Tourism grew with relaxed border restrictions, and Lake Balaton became the preferred vacation destination for Eastern Europeans. River cruising began to lure Westerners in ever-larger numbers. When cracks appeared all over Communist Eastern Europe, Hungary was the first to open its doors to those trying to escape more repressive regimes, even before it overthrew its own communist control.
General Tours steps in
Twenty years after the return of the Crown of St. Stephen to Hungary, the Carter Center in Atlanta contacted General Tours to arrange the 1998 visit to Budapest by President Carter, his wife Rosalynn, their daughter Amy and one of his grandchildren. Traveling under the code name 'Driftwood' and accompanied by 26 Secret Service staff, President Carter received an exact replica of the Crown of St. Stephen, bestowed by the now-democratic government of Hungary in gratitude for the return of the original so many years before. Today, the "new" crown is displayed in the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta.
Our thoughts turn to President Carter and his family as he receives hospice care, and to the memory of that special trip to Budapest. That journey reminds us of his commitment to furthering peace in the world and is an example of how important individual efforts and interactions among individuals can be in that effort. His actions reflect the essence of why people travel to countries whose cultures and governments are different from our own in the name of promoting international understanding.
President Carter's accomplishments include a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the establishment of monitors in countless countries to promote free and fair elections and, after leaving office, the construction of homes for people in need. Everywhere he went, we saw examples of the constant love expressed by this remarkable president of the United States.
And we thank him.