Middle East specialist aims to educate agents

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SEATTLE -- Through history, a caravanserai has been a stopping place for caravans crossing the desert, a place for refreshment as well as meeting new people and exchanging information.

Giza Pyramids Caravan-Serai Tours here is a creator of travel programs to the regions the staff knows best: the Middle East and North Africa, a band stretching from Morocco and Tunisia to Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Dubai, Oman, Yemen and Iran. President Rita Zawaideh and her partners are either from the Middle East or have spent considerable amounts of time in the region.

She said Caravan-Serai offers products for FIT clients and groups that expand beyond the most visited sites and introduce visitors to local people. Zawaideh herself is Jordanian. She lived for eight years in Syria with her husband before returning to the U.S. in 1984, when she became a travel agent who found her own niche selling tickets and homeland tours to Middle Easterners she met at ethnic nightclubs.

She eventually founded her own agency to market the Middle East to Westerners. This is not always an easy part of the world to sell, Zawaideh admits. The main obstacle is trying to instill confidence about a region viewed mostly from the political upheavals reported by the media. "Seasoned travelers are very unlikely to let a destination's negative news deter them from visiting the area," she said, "but nonseasoned travelers often cancel bookings at the first sign of unrest."

Caravan-Serai focuses on participating in trade shows and seminars to educate agency staffs on selling the region's different countries. Zawaideh speaks to prospective travel groups, lecturing on all aspects of life in the region in a 45-minute presentation, followed by a half-hour question-and-answer period.

Key to Caravan-Serai's education efforts is a series of agent fam trips that were inspired by Outbound Traveler magazine. The trips are designed to make the travel industry aware of the loss of historic cultural sites throughout the world and help raise money for preserving endangered cultural landmarks.

Itineraries are designed around the World Monuments Watch program, founded by American Express, which has identified 100 sites most at risk. The company is contributing $5 million over a five-year period for the restoration of those sites and is encouraging others in the travel industry to join in the effort.

To qualify for fam trip participation, travel agents are required to explain an interest in a particular area and, on returning home, to commit to educating staff and clients about endangered site(s). Participating agents can receive continuing education credits through the Institute of Certified Travel Agents program. Fam tours for 1999 are being planned.

This winter, trips to Oman and Lebanon are scheduled. All participants receive a certificate from World Monuments Watch. The organization also subsidizes $100 of the tour cost. Leaving Nov. 5, the World Monument Fam to Egypt will visit Cairo, Marsa Matrouh on the Mediterranean coast, the Oasis of Siwa, Luxor and Aswan. Trips dates are Nov. 8 to 17 for the fam tour to Syria, visiting Damascus and Aleppo as well as the Krak des Chevaliers, Ebla, Bosra, Palmyra, Hama, Latakia and more; the land-only cost is $1,045.

Scheduled for Nov. 30 is a seven-night fam to Iran, with an overnight on arrival and departure in Tehran and two full days in Shiraz (with a full-day tour of Persepolis) and two full days in Isfahan.

Caravan-Serai's regular tour programs include a whole range of Middle East and North African travel options, featuring both traditional destinations and those newer to the tourism track. They include a 14-day journey through Jordan and Syria; an exploration of the Persian Silk Road for 16 days and a 14-day Desert Castles, Camels & Crusaders trek in Jordan.

Participants also can discover Morocco for seven or 14 days; explore Yemen, the Land of Sheba, for 11 or 15 days; travel the Saharan sands of Tunisia for eight days; visit Lebanon for seven days or Upper or Lower Egypt for eight days, and catch the solar eclipse in August 1999 on a 12-day tour of Turkey.

Specifically for 1999, Caravan-Serai Tours will offer a six-night southern Morocco tour via Land Rover. The land-only price is $1,000 per person, double occupancy. Features are accommodations at four-star hotels, with one overnight in a local Berber house; two meals daily, and the services of an English-speaking guide. The tour will start in Marrakesh and continue to the Dades Gorge, Draa Valley, Zagora and Erfoud. Departures are scheduled for March, April, May and Oct.

Caravan-Serai Tours, Phone: (800) 451-8097 or (206) 545-1735, Fax: (206) 547-8607, Web: www.caravan-serai.com

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