Elie Sidawi started Sunny Land Tours in 1964 after working as a young man for a large tour operator. The company quickly became one of the largest specialists to Egypt and the Middle East. Elie now watches over a family operated, multi-destination company that is a member of USTOA and which works closely with the travel agency community.
TRO: Tell me about the history of Sunny Land Tours and your involvement with it.
E.S.: I started Sunny Land Tours in Beirut, Lebanon back in 1965 at age 25, with the company focusing on the Holy Land exclusively. After the Six-Day war of 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and the line of communications between our office in Beirut and our Agents in Jerusalem was cut off completely. During the heat of the war, my newly wed American wife and I were escorted on a freighter by a U.S Submarine to the Island of Cyprus, and from there we continued our migration to the U.S. We incorporated in the US in 1969 as Sunny Land Tours Inc, and diversified our destinations to include Greece, Turkey, and Egypt; where we had much success. As of mid-80’s we diversified our destination-roster to include Central and South America. My role with the company today is the Chairman and CEO.
TRO: Sunny Land has branched into a much broader product line. Tell us about your current product offerings.
E.S.:Through 1975 Sunny Land grew to become the largest Tour Company in the U.S. specializing in Middle East and Holy Land Tours, and a major tour operator for Greece, Turkey and Egypt. By 1975, Sunny Land had branch offices in Beirut; Cairo and Athens to handle our own clients for operational excellence. We built in Chattanooga Tennessee, a 25-Cabin American Standard River Boat “The Nile Explorer” that we shipped to Egypt for the exclusive use of our clientele. The Cruise Boats in Egypt grew from 4 then to over 400 now, and we continue to use the best Cruise Boats that come along.
We stayed focused on the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East through early 80s. When my daughter Lori got involved in the business in mid-80s, she took a leadership role to introduce new destinations to the American travelers, such as Costa Rica, and that’s when we started to diversify our roster. Today we operate 25 destinations worldwide from Central and South America, to the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East. We only specialize in exotic and ancient destinations rich in ecology, history and/or culture.
Our flagship destinations today are Costa Rica, Egypt, Peru, the Galapagos Islands and Morocco. What’s unique about Sunny Land Tours product offering is that we are a one-stop shop, able to accommodate a wide-range of preferences. Not only we operate value packages, but customizable itineraries, as well as completely a-la-carte (custom-FIT) travel as well as private arrangements.
TRO:With a history that long in the industry, Sunny Land has worked with many, many travel agents over the years. Tell us about your relationship with the travel agent community.
E.S.: While airlines and several tour companies are distancing themselves from the Travel Agency distribution channels, Sunny Land Tours elects to stay committed to the travel agency community. We work with travel agencies of any affiliation, including IATAN, CLIA, and OSSN. We have over 5,000 Travel Agencies who prefer to sell Sunny Land’s product-line on niche market destinations. I encourage TRO’s travel agent readers to check Sunny Land’s travel-agents-only corporate site at http://www.sunnylandtours.info/ for profile, policies, commissions; and to look at our product-web site at http://www.sunnylandtours.com/
TRO: Sunny Land has an extensive Familiarization program for travel agents. Can you describe that program and its place in your business plan?
E.S.: I believe that it helps to having traveled to a destination and experience a tour operators services, for a travel agent to be credible in recommending a destination and a tour operator to his or her clients. It is because of this philosophy we offer many independent fam trips (to accommodate the schedules of travel agents); as well as organized travel agent educational trips (as small groups). The fam trips we feature have special low pricing representing up to 60% off retail rates. For travel agents specializing in group travel we even offer free inspection trips.. The agent community should visit our exclusive travel-agents-only fam trip website at http://www.hotfamtrips.com/ and register to receive updates on upcoming fams on the VIP list.
TRO: What is the best way for an agent to present destinations like Egypt to their clients and how do your tours there differ from other operators?
E.S.: Egypt is among the best selling and most satisfying destination we have this year. With 40 plus years experience in operating to Egypt, we perfected our product-line and operation. I am not exaggerating when I say “if you plan to travel to Egypt do it NOW!” Rates have never been this low, and I don’t think they will ever be this low ever again. We are offering savings of up to $1,000 on certain departures to Egypt for comprehensive packages including air, visiting Cairo, sailing on the Nile and including most meals. Agents must check out the Egypt product line on our dedicated Egypt website at http://www.egypthotdeals.com/
TRO: Turkey seems to be high on many people’s “places I want to visit” list. Are you seeing a strong interest in Turkey and did ASTA’s presence there at the last International Destination Expo help to expose the destination?
E.S.: Turkey is an amazing destination, probably one of the most diverse in terms of culture, history and nature. From Istanbul, to Cappadocia, Pamukkale, Ephesus, and the Mediterranean basin what’s not to love? Yes, absolutely the ASTA IDE was a great opportunity for Turkey to be a reminder to the American Travel Agent community. As importantly, Istanbul being the European Culture Capital this year, is also attracting worldwide interest. European Culture Capital is a title given to a different city each year by the European Union. Literally hundreds of cultural events taking place in Istanbul this fall and winter, making it a very attractive time to travel. Again, agents can visit http://www.turkeyhotdeals.com/ for more information on the tours we feature to Turkey, as well as combo packages with Greece.
TRO: What Sunny Land destinations would you recommend for the first time visitor?
E.S.: I must say, Egypt for its history and unbeatable rates now; and Costa Rica with its ecology and bio-diversity.
TRO:. What are the destinations that are receiving the most attention from North American travelers currently?
E.S.: I touched upon that earlier, and not to be repetitious but Costa Rica, Egypt, Peru. Galapagos Islands, and Morocco seem to be very “hot” and all indication they will remain “hot” through 2011.
TRO: What is next for Sunny Land? Are there new destinations on the horizon, or new tours about to be offered?
E.S.: Yes, we are always seeking to help bring to the spotlight new and less traveled destinations –in the works are El Salvador and Colombia. We have a commitment to offer the best values and the richest travel experiences in the market in all fronts: Hosted Package Tours, Customized Packages, as well as FITs and Private arrangements.
TRO: What are your own favorite spots?
E.S.: Having traveled for business for 50 years running: home of course! Joking aside I go to Costa Rica quite a bit now, because it’s not a long haul destination, and has what I’m looking for at my age right now: short flight, good hotels, good service, relaxation, and good food!