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Community-based tourism in Jericho and Palestine

A career choice, a lifestyle or both? A sustainable approach to peace between tourism as a business and the local Palestinian identity.
19 Aug

Community-based tourism in Jericho and Palestine

A career choice, a lifestyle or both?

While an increasing number of startups, hubs, incubators and investment companies are on the rise in the Palestinian business scene, tourism (in its many different forms) remains one of the oldest (and probably the most promising) industries in Palestine. Regardless of which came first, the Palestinian hospitality and the tourism industry in Palestine are deeply interconnected, and native Palestinians, nevertheless, are naturals to it. Many examples come to mind, perhaps the most recurring of which is an average Palestinian’s attempt to give directions. First assuming travelers would know where Abu Mahmoud’s grocery store is or possess the tacit skill of realizing where each of the four directions are at any given time, an average Palestinian would go as far as accompanying you to your destination while tirelessly insisting (and sometimes succeeding) that you be his or her guest for lunch.

This being said, now imagine combining a natural gift for hospitality with a career choice in tourism. Any imaginable outcome is either extremely brilliant or horribly wicked: the two faces of the Palestinian tourism business culture. We come from a family of souvenirs merchants and shop owners in Jerusalem and have witnessed our adequate share of the market culture. In the confined walls of their shop, my father and uncle would innovate in sales pitches for tourists saying “We love you”, “Please, you can touch” and “Mme, today I’m going to have steak for dinner and you are going to pay for it!”. This salesmanship is exclusive neither to our family nor to the confined walls of shops. There is perhaps no better place to witness this than a day-time stroll in the Old City of Jerusalem, where the ancient market is still kicking with life, colors and smells. There, where people tend to believe in both the free market theory and in the invisible hand (in this case that of God, not of China), sales pitches are by purely evolutionary means shorter, wittier, and more intense. The merchants aspire to charm walking-by tourists in a much shorter time frame than that of an elevator pitch, and these highly competitive conditions trigger continuous creativity and innovation. You could hear an educated young man with an excellent level of English fake a Palestinian accent and utter words like “Hallo Lady”, “A hundred camels for your wife my friend” and “Welcome… back door to the Via Dolorosa through my shop”. Kais has spent a considerable amount of time in this environment and has recorded for us some of the most interesting phrases he learnt over the years.  (listen here)

 

This kind of culture, one imagines, leaves a curious traveler with the conflict of feeling flattered and sociable while being afraid of falling in a tourist trap; and you’d be amazed of how the accumulated psychological skills of merchants and street vendors can penetrate yet the wittiest of pockets! This kind of culture, also raises an internal conflict between the two pillars of tourism and its great potential in Palestine: ‘genuine local hospitality’ and ‘tourism as a career’; at least that in pursuit of a dignified living in an increasingly challenging (mostly external) conditions. However, these very same conditions became the catalysts for other emerging types of tourism that are very promising and hold a great potential for the industry in Palestine. Taken separately, there is ecotourism and the rising association with egotourism. There is political tourism and the question of ‘what do we promote in post-war Palestine?’. And then there is religious tourism and an increasing number of atheists in the world, especially in western societies that have more access to travel. While these fall majorly under the alternative tourism category, we like to think of the term community-based tourism as a broader concept that holds the promise for the future of tourism in Palestine. However, among and above all, the community is everything that goes on within it. Hence, the broader term of community-based tourism, which has the capability to incorporate any of these stand-alone issues. If the community lives an environment-friendly life or undergoes an ecological challenge, community-based tourism will reflect it, just like it would reflect a political conflict or economic instability if they existed. If the community was truly religious, then what better way to preach a message other than observing it values in practice? And the same applies to a political cause.

As compared to other Palestinians cities, and due to its laid-back, countryside-like and not-yet-that-exploited nature, Jericho in specific serves as a rich ground for development in this sector and Auberg-Inn is only one of the many initiatives in community-based tourism taking place in Jericho and Palestine. Serious local and international efforts are invested in developing the tourism infrastructure and lobbying towards roper legislation and public recognition. The Abraham Path Initiative (API) supports the development of hiking trails and the communities and facilities that exist along the path, and they have recently concluded marking one of Palestine’s most popular (and allegedly most ancient) hiking trails in Jericho, with the help of Masar Ibrahim Al Khalil, one of their local partners. Rozana association also works with API on raising awareness and developing the capacity of host communities in Jericho and its surrounding areas. Bawadi Desert and Auja Eco Center are two brilliant ecotourism initiatives by Jericho’s neighboring Bedouin and farmer communities, bringing back value to the people who have mastered (and eventually inspired) the ‘art of walking’ and ancient agriculture. The word is new guesthouses are also opening soon in yet more exotic places in and around Jericho, while there is continuously fresh Jericho content in a new urban guidebook to Palestine and a bold dream of an international artist residency and research center in Jericho. Jericho’s pride remains its Tourist Information Center (the combined efforts of The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiques, Jericho Municipality and JICA development agency) with its highly professional and friendly staff. On a broader national level, perhaps one of best examples of community-based tourism initiatives, is the experience of Battir village, it’s rich landscape and wonderfully ever-evolving people.

Still, there is a lot of space for investing efforts, especially in the local tourism business culture.  We still get complains from guests about a taxi driver who insists to charge more than due or a stranger who claims to work with us in order to lead guests to one of the last-standing tourist traps. However, and as the name suggests, community-based tourism is inclusive by nature, and thus its growth, development, and local popularity are inevitable. By maintaining a sufficient level of transparency and an open and inclusive approach with the community, and with the help of today’s technology tools, the increasing number of independent travelers will continue to nurture this growing sector in Palestine. Perhaps then, a message of faith or a political cause may be more thoroughly communicated, as a by-product of community-based tourism rather than as a product by itself.

For travelers, community-based tourism is an honest opportunity to experience ‘local life as it is’. As for the locals, and in addition to the countless ‘economic and social’ benefits, community-based tourism at last brings ‘tourism as a business culture’ and ‘the culture of genuine hospitality’ to good terms. It relieves the pressure of a confusing ‘friend or client’ dilemma, opening the door for sincere and thoughtful human interaction and cultural dialogue. And while a career in community-based tourism is a way to sustain a humble level of life, it most importantly allows us, as locals, to realize the great value of things that we would otherwise just take for granted: the fact that we still grow our own fruits and vegetables and own donkeys, the fact that we are serious about our food, funerals, and weddings, and that one of our greatest virtues lies in our social thread and in our complicated relationship with our own community. In other words, it allows us to be ourselves. While some of our fellow citizens might find it awkward that we treat our baby donkey Rasputin like a pet, the more people realize these genuine details about our way of living, the more they will be inclined to sustain their original way of life; at least the parts that are just awesome about it and really worth keeping. And again, only as a side product, we will perhaps possess yet another tool in our fight against issues like poverty, occupation, or global warming. And if any one would insist that tourism remains to be a show business and an ancient theatrical platform, there is still plenty of responsibility and impact in the choice of roles we decide to play.