Flight of Friendship shows that Phuket is ready for tourism

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Evelyn Curtin-Spencer wanted to do something to help. While on hold, waiting to make a donation to Unicef to benefit tsunami survivors, the home agent from Chadds Ford, Pa., picked up Travel Weekly and read about the Flight of Friendship.

She read how Sho Dozono, owner of Azumano Travel in Portland, Ore., was organizing a trip to Phuket, Thailand, to show support for tourism workers there. And as she read, she realized she wanted to do more than just send money. She wanted to send a message of hope -- in person.

At about that same time, 3,000 miles away in San Francisco, Annie Meyer opened an e-mail from Dozono that described the Flight of Friendship.

Meyer, a vice president of Wells Fargo Bank, manages a $120 million travel budget thats booked through Azumano. A few days later, she called Dozono and asked if she could join.

The situation repeated itself in one variation or another across the industry and across Dozonos client base. By the departure date of Feb. 7, 61 people had signed onto the Flight of Friendship.

A diversified group

Travel agents, meeting planners and corporate travel managers joined suppliers coming from the aviation, car rental and travel insurance sectors. From his client list, Dozono recruited a member of the Federal Reserve Board, an ex-senators wife, a city commissioner of Portland and the head of the citys visitors bureau.

And, importantly, he secured the involvement of Nick Stanley, the honorary consul of Thailand for the Pacific Northwest, who then helped secure money to subsidize the trip as well as open doors to the highest levels of officialdom in Thailand.

Upon arrival in Bangkok, the leadership of the delegation was given private briefings by Ralph Skip Boyce, U.S. Ambassador to Thailand; ambassador Nitaya Pibulsongkram of the Foreign Ministry; and Secretary Sakthip Krairiksh of the Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

Boyce and Pibulsongkram later addressed the delegation as a whole, and the group met with a director general of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the mayor of the city of Phuket, the vice governor of the province of Phuket and the governor of Krabi Province.

Ready for tourism

Azumano Travel is an American Express-affiliated agency, and Amex co-hosted a reception for the delegates in Bangkok that was attended by Peter de Jong, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), the leadership of the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand, advisors to government ministers and the ruling party and local business leaders, including the general manager of Microsoft in Thailand.

The message to the delegation was clear: Many of Thailands Andaman Sea resort areas already have recovered from the tsunami, and the local people are eager for the return of tourists.

While some areas, particularly on Phi Phi Island and in Phang Nga province, are not ready for tourism, the majority of properties on Phuket Island are functioning normally but are suffering from occupancy rates in the single digits.

Seeing is believing

After touring Phuket and Krabi (another resort area affected by the tsunami), the message from the delegates to their hosts was equally clear.

We can see that the products are attractive, Dozono said. Were convinced that its not too soon, or inappropriate, for travelers to return. And well do what we can to help bring travelers back.

Regardless of the amount of business that directly or indirectly comes to Thailand as a result of the Flight of Friendship, PATAs de Jong believes something important has already been accomplished by the mission. Even if its simply symbolic, its important to be a messenger, to help change perceptions, he said. Its all about perception.

De Jong also said the velocity, focus and agenda of the Flight of Friendship is pretty damn remarkable. Its the only joint industry-consumer initiative of its kind that Ive seen.

Boyce hailed the citizen ambassadors of the group, saying, Speaking as an American, I have to say that this type of reaching out is amazing -- and very timely.

The delegates of the Flight of Friendship prior to marching in Phukets Chinese New Year parade. The blue, circular logo translates as USA loves Thailand. TW photo by Arnie Weissmann.For many of the delegates, the highlight of the trip was marching in Phukets Chinese New Year parade. Simply interacting with a festive crowd of residents reinforced the understanding that, whatever disaster may have befallen the town a month and a half earlier, life goes on in all of its dimensions.

Dozono was generous in sharing credit for the mission. He cites an opinion piece in Travel Weekly as the inspiration for the project. He redirects praise for the content of the trip to Nick Stanley, who helped raise money and cut red tape. He acknowledges a debt to PATA, which successfully encouraged its members to join the group.

But by the end of the mission, there was no doubt in any delegates mind that the Flight of Friendship took off because of Dozonos passion, credibility and organizational skills.

Sho just has a way of getting you involved, said the delegations co-chair, Elaine Franklin, a political consultant in Portland.

He begins a phone call by saying, Im thinking about ... and ends it with, We have to do this, and I really need your help. Who can refuse?

To contact Editor-in-Chief Arnie Weissmann, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For more details on this article, see:

" Tsunami brings about rule changes on Thai beach

" Restoring buildings, rebuilding lives

 

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