ON PAGE 24 of the new Aito Directory of Real Holidays is a listing of the 'Really Unusual Holidays' offered by its members. This selection includes an Amazon paddling expedition, donkey-riding in the Cevennes, treks in the traces of the Cathars, stage-coach driving and wildebeest migration.

Now try this experiment in your high street: pop into the local Lunn Poly or Going Places and politely inquire what they have in the way of packages featuring donkey treks or wildebeest migration. You will not get a brochure; you will get what used to be known as an old-fashioned look.

In the heyday of Thomas Cook, travel agencies prided themselves on selling, well, travel. A slow boat to China? A cruise ship down the Nile? A berth on a fast train to Budapest? All meat and drink to a white-jacketed buffer employed in the old marble halls of Cook's wonderful Berkeley Street emporium.

Now travel agencies - sadly, even Thomas Cook - are in the hands of mass-market tour companies that treat travel as a commodity to be piled high and sold cheap. Their concern is not selling dreams but maximising profitability.

Of course, the 140 or so holiday companies that belong to Aito (the Association of Independent Tour Operators) are concerned about making a profit, too. But a glance through the Directory of Real Holidays reveals that most of the members still have that mad, romantic passion for the business which involves sending people to hand-picked favourite places.

The list of Aito's members is a Who's Who of specialist tour operators. Cheltenham-based VFB Holidays, for example, wins the Holiday Which? 'best holiday company' survey with such monotonous regularity that by now the Consumers' Association should have handed over the trophy for VFB to keep. The list also includes CV Travel, Greek Islands Club, Journey Latin America, Laskarina, Sunvil Holidays, Magic of Italy and Time Off, to name a few.

When the association was founded in 1976, it was with a view to finding a way for smaller operators to reduce the crippling level of bonding required by the regulations introduced in the wake of the Court Line collapse.

But over the past 18 years Aito has developed far beyond being just a trade association or marketing consortium: it represents the interests of the independent traveller - setting out the case for genuine choice in the travel agency, arguing for proper consumer protection and developing a system that provides for sensible arbitration of clients' disputes.

Shortly after the Independent was launched in 1986, I wrote that, just as there had been a campaign for real ale, there ought to be one for real holidays. Aito took up the cause and produced its directory, which now appears annually.

The fact that Aito's membership has doubled over the past three years shows the public's thirst for real holidays is as great as it was for real ale. Teetotaller Thomas Cook himself, in that great travel agency in the sky, would no doubt be happy to raise a glass of Dogbolter to toast Aito's achievements in fostering the spirit of real travel.

Aito Directory of Real Holidays 1994 is available, free, from 133a St Margaret's Road, Twickenham TW1 1RG (081-744 9280).

For details of an Independent/Aito travel offer, see page 20.