Sandra Gamo is just old enough to be able to say that she was “a rare species” in the late 1950s, when she was a bilingual Pan American Airways flight hostess. In those days few young women in this part of the world had achieved her level of two languages, poise and presence. Remarkably, and very early in life despite wartime deprivations, she determined her aims. She has been showing her mettle ever since.
She was born in Tokyo, claiming American citizenship through her mother, who came here from Hawaii. Sandra and her brother had the war years and elementary education in Japan, then the family went to Hawaii. “I was already 10,” Sandra said. “I was reading a lot. The University of Hawaii has a very good Asian library. I knew the importance of reading and writing, and I used to go to the library, and read and improve my languages.” She had the thought in mind that she would fly eventually, but in the meantime she entered the University of Hawaii. She was acknowledging the influence of her father, who was an architect, when she undertook the university’s architectural course.
After completing it, Sandra was interviewed and accepted by Pan American Airways. She trained, flew briefly, enjoyed it less than she thought she would, and married. “I was very young,” she said. “My husband was Japanese, and we came to Japan. They were fun years.”
She was preoccupied making a home for her husband, daughter and son, and supposed that she would carry on in that way. Instead, she joined the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Travel and Tourism Administration. “That was in the year prior to the liberalization of outbound travel from Japan,” Sandra said. “I was local hire with the agency’s Japan Regional Office. For 33 years I was involved in various aspects of marketing, promotion, advertising, public relations and trade liaison.” In 1989, the USTTA underwent a conversion of status into the U.S. Foreign Service. Thereupon, Sandra assumed the diplomatic title of first secretary/commercial attache of the embassy, with direct responsibility for tourism.
She became a well-known, well-traveled figure then, with a wide network of international, influential friends. Four years after becoming an embassy attache, and until she retired in 1996, Sandra filled the appointment of regional director, Japan and Asia. In this capacity she assumed total responsibility for planning and implementation of all USTTA activities in Japan and other countries of Asia. She initiated the U.S.-Japan Tourism Exchange Promotion Program, which aimed at doubling tourism exchange between the two countries by 2000. The Japanese Ministry of Transport and tourist industry leaders joined in the program. Sandra served as the only non-Japanese member on the Ministry of Transport’s Tourism Promotion Advisory Council.
Effective and soignee, she received numerous U.S. Department of Commerce commendations, and a silver and bronze medal. She was a founding member of the Association of National Tourism Office Representatives. In 1985 she was elected the first female president of the Transportation Club of Japan, “this prestigious club with the spirit of friendship, Japan’s oldest and most celebrated tourism industry fraternity,” she described it. In 1997 the Transportation Club of Japan named her its first and only international tourism ambassador, “in recognition of her outstanding contributions in development of demand and promotions in the transportation industry.” That accolade, and her record, might have been enough for most people, but Sandra wasn’t done yet.
“I created the Visit USA company, to provide counsel and assistance to Japanese and foreign marketers,” she said. “I planned to carry on, but I had to go into hospital, and had to give up some of the operations. I maintained the office, though, and now offer mostly training and lecturing. I chat with agency people. Basically my office is my working space, my hideaway.” In what she calls her “twilight years,” Sandra remains a fount of efficiency, keeping her connections with the like-minded, knowledgeable people she has known for many years. She serves as member of the Japan Tourism 100 Advisory Council, and is a trustee of the JTB Travel College.
She still looks more like a beauty queen than the grandmother of four small children. Whilst caring for her 95-year-old mother, she stays professional in availability and response. The appreciation of reading that helped put her on her way when she was a child is still a main pleasure for her. “I do a lot of reading,” she said.