The Travel Adviser: Bye Bye Birdie

Too often we are simply unaware of what one man has to do to make someone’s personal freedom a reality.

How I was invited to a world premiere in LA last week of a digitally restored print of one of my all-time childhood movie musicals, Bye Bye Birdie, I’ll never discover.
Ann-Margret’s rendition of the title song still resonates deeply in my consciousness. And no doubt the link between the travel industry and the movie’s title was somehow planted in my mind at the tender age of three when the film premiered.
The movie parodies Elvis Presley’s draft into the US Army and the decision to travel to a small town in the Midwest to plant one last kiss on an innocent school girl to be televised on one of the most popular variety shows in the US at the time. A multitude of factors must all come together to create the desired outcome, which as fellow devotees of the movies already know is never an easy path.
Thus when Rachel Ron, aged 77, contacted me two weeks prior to Pessah, to ask what she described as a simple question, a silent alarm immediately went off in my head.
Rachel and her husband had purchased tickets to fly to Melbourne, Australia over a month earlier, planning to arrive 10 days prior to the commencement of the Passover holiday. Their daughter and, more importantly, their grandchildren resided in Melbourne, and for this holiday it was decided the grandparents would fly to them.
When making the reservation, their travel consultant warned them immediately that they needed a visa to travel to Australia. In fact most nationalities, be they US or UK passport holders – and certainly Israeli passport holders – are required to apply for a visa.
Let’s be frank – with the advent of the Internet, common sense would assume that applying for visas is a far easier task today than the antiquated format of filling out lengthy forms. Both Australia, and to be honest, the US, prove this adage incorrect.
To obtain an Australian visa, one must be very clear on the reasons for one’s potential journey and the entire form must be crystal clear. More and more embassies in Israel prefer that visa applications be handled by a central authority, and the largest such conveyor of visa applications is the Israel Tourist & Travel Agents Association.
The Association’s Managing Director Yossi Fatael, has made the process of applying for a visa – be it India or Australia, China or the United States – efficient and professional.
The Rons’ travel consultant downloaded the correct forms, sent them to her client, gave them clear instructions on what to return – photos, documentation etc – and told them their visas would take approximately 14 working days to process.
So when I was told by the Rons that 21 working days had transpired, small beads of sweat erupted on my forehead.
However, a quick call to the Association relieved me. I was informed that there had been a backlog but that in the next two days their visas would be issued and the passports sent back to the travel agency’s office.
As they were not flying out until the following Saturday night, and it was only Tuesday morning, Mrs. Ron was extremely grateful for my optimistic words. It was the last time she would be so grateful.
The next morning, someone was kind enough to call me to say the Rons’ passports had been collected from the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv and on Thursday morning they would be sent via Taxi Aviv to the travel agent’s office.
Surprise, surprise, somehow the satchel of passports, visas and other sundry items of the Association never made it to the Taxi Aviv office.
This satchel contained dozens of passports, with visas not only to Australia, but to the US and China. Clients from offices throughout Israel were affected. Business clients trying to squeeze one last meeting in the US before Pessah and Easter had no travel documents; leisure clients wishing to join their organized tour down the Yangtze River in China were set ashore, and the Ron’s fervent desire to spend Pessah Down Under was drifting farther away.
Larger than a reticule, yet smaller than a duffle bag, it was unclear if the satchel of documents had been lost or stolen. Security cameras were searched; no clear answer emerged.
On Friday morning I personally broke the bad news to the Rons that they would not be flying out Saturday night, that the police were involved, that dozens of passports were ‘missing’ and that serious alarms had been set off throughout Tel Aviv. They needed new passports, as well as new visas.
Devotees of the movies know that sometimes a small miracle is needed. In the case of Bye Bye Birdie, a pill is slipped into the ballerina’s food, forcing her to dance at a frenzied pace. That this dancer, Karel Shimoff, was only 15 years old and my cousin only added to my belief that anything is possible.
Yossi Fatael needed no magic pill. He had Association representatives meet all those who needed new Israeli passports early Sunday morning at the Interior Ministry in order to issue emergency passports. He somehow cajoled and convinced all the Tel Aviv-based embassies involved to issue new visas early Monday morning.
He instructed every single travel agency involved to reissue new airline tickets, rebook any missed hotel reservations and to get everyone on a plane that Monday evening, arriving for Pessah with time to spare. All extra expenses would be reimbursed by the Association.
The Rons were incredulous that it was truly happening; their tepid thanks were quickly followed by inquiries of compensation. No matter, I thought, they were blameless throughout the entire process. Little did they know how much was done to enable them to make their trip a reality! Sitting down to Seder the following week, as I retold our people’s path to freedom, a half-smile crossed my face. Too often we are simply unaware of what one man has to do to make someone’s personal freedom a reality.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.

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