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John Forsyth 1926 2013

Pioneering Australian Icon of Bali and Beyond Travel John Forsyth Dead at 87

(11/1/2013) The Bali's Travel Industry noted the passing of a legend and true friend with the death on Friday, October 25, 2013 of John Forsyth.

John died at age 87 in Australia. Confined to a wheelchair and in failing health for the past several years, John remained true-to-form until the very end by spinning holiday dreams and composing travel brochures to the many corners of the globe he called “home.”

Besides John at the end was his wife Aileen Collins, John’s travel business colleague since 1974 and wife since 1981.

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A Remarkable Life's Journey

John’s life's story of well-blazed journeys down many less traveled roads started in 1966 when John received a “golden handshake” from a shirt manufacturing company.

At loose ends and wondering what to do next, John jumped feet first into then unexplored world of travel by opening a storefront travel office – Forsyth Travel located at Broadway in Sydney.

A quick study and endlessly resourceful, John’s early approach was to spend time chatting with members of the public who walked into his travel shop, excuse himself and run into the back room with their travel questions, call Thomas Cook with the same questions, and then return a short time later to the waiting client with the information they required.

Courting Controversy

An innovator, John was the first to have “24 Hours Travel” – he did this by placing a telephone under his bed. Later,  he deployed mini-skirted girls on motorbikes to deliver travel flyers – a move much criticized at the time.

If the truth were told, John Forsyth always loved a bit of controversy. He pioneered Australian tours to China that resulted in a Court Case that was eventually thrown out when it was proven that an Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA) director testifying against John was, in fact, actively planning similar tours.

The Start of a Long Love Affair with Indonesia

Eager to expand his travel business, one day John opened his atlas and marveled at the collection of 17,000 tropical islands of Indonesia that neighbored Australia.

Recognizing opportunity and potential when he saw it, John flew to Jakarta at a time when Indonesian tourism was very much in its infancy. Both charismatic and determined in equal measure, John managed to return from Jakarta with the designation of “Indonesia Travel Center” for his Sydney office.

Increasingly aware of the travel potential for Bali, John eventually opened a small representative office at the Hotel Irama near Denpasar to serve the substantial number of Australians Forsyth Travel was sending to Bali.

Rough Seas

Having made a firm beachhead on the Islands of the Gods, John decided to up his game in Bali travel by transporting backpackers on board the MV Patrica – a ship John chartered in Hong Kong to travel between Darwin and Bali. Investing large sums to build dormitories for as many backpackers as the ships passenger certificate would allow, the ship was soon ready to make its maiden voyage.

Fully booked and set to sail the next day, the MV Patricia’s skipper got horribly drunk on the eve of the first voyage, causing John to hastily recruit a replacement Master.

Unhappily, the new Captain managed to ground the vessel on the reef at the entrance to Benoa harbor in Bali, despite being told to berth the ship in North Bali. John then spent even more money bringing the passengers to Bali and Singapore, in keeping with their original travel bookings.

San Michele Travel

Largely as a result of the shipping fiasco, Forsyth Travel went into liquidation in 1972 only to see John re-emerge 3 months later as the general Manager of San Michele Travel. The name of John’s new travel venture was inspired by the book “The Story of San Michele”  the rebuilding of Tiberius’s villa on the Isle of Capri achieved by carrying rock after rock by hand from the sea to the mountaintop.

Undiminished in his wanderlust and ever-the-innovator, John opened the first overland route from Darwin to London. The scheme promoted individual travel by public transport – open-dated – with a recommended hotel included for 1 night in each destination. Young and young-at-heart travelers journied at their own pace, backed up by a network of agents established by San Michele to support them along the way.

These early intrepid travelers flew from Darwin to Dili in Portuguese Timor; traveled from Baucau to Oecussi using horseback on some sectors; island hopped to Bali; traveled across Java by both train and bus; visited Sumatra by boat and bone-shattering bus trips; took boats to Singapore to start a train trip up the Malaysian Peninsula to Bangkok; flew from Bangkok to Rangoon and later to Calcutta; rode trains to Darjeeling; jumped “eyes closed” bus journeys to Kathmandu and Pokhara and down to the Indian border; rode trains through Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur, Delhi and onto Amritsar before crossing the border into Pakistan; transited through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan; savored the Kabul Kandahar and Herat before traveling onto Mashed and Teheran in Iran; blazed overland through Turkey innto Greece; and finally caught an express bus to London.

These remarkable journeys were all engineered by John Forsyth in the days before the declaration of a  “lonely planet ” and when few books had been written on traveling on a shoestring budget. 

Despite the many ups and down in his travel career, John Forsyth loved to make decisions on the run, relying on his instincts and business acumen to see him right in the long haul. Indisputably one of John’s better business moves business moves involved hiring Aileen Collins to work at San Michele in 1974. After a brief interview in which Aileen stood out as the only candidate who could spell “Kathmandu,” John offered her a job providing she could start immediately. After Aileen worked 7 years at San Michele, John realized Aileen had become indispensible on several levels and promoted he to the position of "wife"  in 1981.

Over time, San Michele’s focus turned to packaged tours flying from Australia to Indonesia and other Southeast Asian destinations.  As in the past, the bread and butter of San Michele were itineraries tossed into the “too hard basket” by travel competitors. A growing business base of loyal customers soon paved the way for additional travel offices Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin.

9-11 in 2001 and the first tragic terrorist bombings in Bali in 2002 that killed 8 San Michele’s clients, precipitated a general downturn in travel to Bali. In the difficult business period that followed, San Michele's legendary “Bali Bus” shuttled people around the less-visited areas of Bali, providing a ready solution for Bali visitors suddenly less keen on the crowded tourist areas of the South Island.

Semi-Retirement

In 2004, when John was 78, Aileen and John decided to sell San Michele to Ian Norris, the previous manager of Garuda Orient Holiday, and relocated to Australia’s Gold Coast where Aileen stayed on at San Michele until that company closed in 2007.

Since 2007, Aileen has worked with Travel Managers as a home-based agent. Meanwhiile, John set up his own website www.asiatravelexperts.com that allowed John to stayed involved in Asian travel and refer  bookings  backto Aileen.

John and Aileen also operate a commercial houseboat at Sanctuary Cove.

John Forsyth was first and foremost an indefatigable traveler. Confined to a wheelchair since 2005, he still managed to travel to remote Komodo island and celebrate his 30th anniversary with Aileen two years ago, and made visits to India, Vietnam and Bali in 2012 and Laos in January of 2013.

A memory of John still fresh in our minds is an impromptu Bali farewell with friends in 2004 when John, an accomplished jazz pianist, held court at a grand piano surrounded by adoring friends. Well into his eigth decade of life, John still managed to amaze and entertain all those with whom he came in contact

Somehow we see John suggesting to St. Peter that heaven “is all very nice” but it may be time for Peter to broaden horizons and start planning a journey to an even more exotic locations.

Happy Trails, dear Friend. An entire island of mourning admirers miss you.

Those wishing to send a note of friendship and condolences to Aileen can [Email Aileen Collins].