So where is the natural place to experience “10 countries without a passport”?
Omaha, of course.
Two busloads rolled into town Monday afternoon with nearly 90 visitors from the Quad Cities area in and around Davenport, Iowa. Before departing for home Thursday morning they will have sampled the food, traditions, art and history of Omaha's ethnicity and culture.
“We average about 70 to 75 motor-coach groups a year that take part in some form of the 'Countries Without a Passport' experience,” said Deb Ward of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This year alone, groups have visited from 14 states.”
This week's group from eastern Iowa and western Illinois arrived at the Bohemian Cafe to the aroma of fresh-baked kolaches and a demonstration of how to make them. As he always does for tour groups, Terry Kapoun, whose family owns the restaurant, played its advertising jingle: “Dumplings and kraut today ... at the Bohemian Cafe.”
He talked about the history of the restaurant, just south of downtown, which dates to 1924, and joked around. “They're on vacation and want to have a good time,” he said. “It's fun, it really is.”
The group, whose members are mostly over age 55, then checked in at a motel. Later they arrived at the German-American Society Hall to enjoy a German meal, German dancers and a sing-along choir, and a talk about our area's German heritage.
Today, on Election Day — everyone presumably having voted in advance — the visitors are scheduled for a humorous talk and demonstration on Ukrainian linens. After a stop at the Omaha Visitor Center downtown, the buses were to tour Omaha sites and then let folks off for lunch in the Old Market.
An afternoon visit to the Spanish-style St. Cecilia Cathedral, with its artwork and 25-ton organ, was to precede a stop at the Lithuanian Bakery for torte samples and a bread-baking demonstration.
This evening, before returning to the motel to watch election returns, the group will visit St. John's Greek Orthodox Church for a homemade Greek dinner and a tour of the Byzantine-style edifice. Visitors get to take part in a traditional Greek wedding dance.
On Wednesday they will enjoy a tasting of teas of China and then stop at the Scottish Baronial-style Joslyn Castle for a presentation by the Nebraska Scottish Society.
That will be followed by lunch at world-famous Boys Town, founded by Irish-born Father Edward Flanagan, and then dessert and a presentation on French customs at Le Voltaire restaurant. Later, at El Museo Latino, visitors will enjoy traditional costumes and dance performed by the Chomari Ballet Folklórico Mexicano.
The ethnic-cultural tours of Omaha are coordinated for each visiting group by Bill Slovinski of the convention and visitors bureau. The array of options is billed as “a unique experience you can't find anywhere else.”
Each group can pick and choose. This week's tour group, through the Quad-City Times and Trailways Travel, selected 10 “countries,” but some groups see as many as 12.
Randy Kester of Trailways said this is the first time his company has taken a group on this kind of tour to Omaha. Organizers at the bureau did a great job promoting it, he said, and the response to an article in the Quad-City Times about the planned tour was excellent. (The basic cost, depending on the type of motel room, ranged from $429 to $619 per person.)
On short tours like this one, people are looking for something different. After all, everyone can enjoy chain restaurants in all parts of the country.
But tours such as these can highlight distinctive local cafes and institutions that make for more memorable trips. Kapoun, of the Bohemian Cafe, said the added business of the tour groups in a competitive restaurant environment is “a godsend.”
Bill Sjoblom of Austin, Texas, owner of SJO-PRO Tours, raved about an Omaha tour, which included an organ recital, a tequila tasting, a Swedish smörgåsbord and visits to the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and the Omaha Community Playhouse.
In a testimonial, he called Omaha “a beautiful, progressive city perched on tree-covered rolling hills.”
At the end of a long election campaign, Omaha welcomes dozens of folks who voted to relax for a few days, enjoy good food and entertainment and learn about ethnic cultures. Sounds like a winner.
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