Galilee Diary: Fair Tourism
...The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size... We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.
– Numbers 13:32-33
Recently I attended a conference on the topic of "fair tourism," sponsored by an interfaith organization, the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations. Until I received the invitation I had never heard of "fair tourism," even though, it seems, I have been in the fair tourism business for 20 years. Actually, even after an evening of panels and workshops, I am not sure I can give a concise definition of the concept. There are a number of possible dimensions:
- Sustainability in terms of environmental and cultural impact; preservation of natural and cultural assets;
- Fair trade: making sure local workers and businesses share fairly in the economic benefits of tourism, and are not exploited;
- Political sensitivity: avoiding propaganda, and unbalanced presentations of cultural, political, and historical positions in areas of past or present conflict.
In Israel all of these topics are relevant, though we are relatively advanced in the first two areas. There are always issues of environmental impact – jeep tours through sensitive habitats, massive hotels on fragile beaches; and questions about the social benefits provided by cleaning contractors employing immigrants (legal or not); but in general, Israel has not seen the kind of eco-disasters and social abuses that are often encountered by tourists to resorts and natural wonders in third-world countries.
With respect to the third category, a lot of interesting questions arise, perhaps the central one being: to what extent does the tourism industry have an obligation to be educational? Is our job to maintain and nurture myths, or are we supposed to force visitors to learn about realities they’d rather not confront? Much of the talk at the conference was about the extent to which tourists should be informed about the Jewish-Arab conflict here – and if so, how and by whom? To what degree of complexity and depth? Are tour guides supposed to be ambassadors – or educators? Is their job to entertain or to challenge.
Most tourists in Israel are Christian pilgrims who follow very rigid itineraries that focus on religious sites and religious experience. They are largely insulated from the stuff behind the headlines, and are apparently happy that way. Many Jewish tourists, while not fitting a classic definition of religious pilgrims, are also on a kind of pilgrimage, to see and experience the Israel they know from the Bible and other texts and from the heroic texts and images of Zionism – or in some cases, from the heroic texts and images of the oppression of the Palestinians. In all these cases, it is not clear whether people in fact prefer not to be surprised or confused – or whether those planning and leading their tours are opposed to or afraid of surprising or confusing their clients.
Over the years I have facilitated hundreds of encounters for Jewish tourists with local Arab citizens. The responses are consistently enthusiastic, like the woman who came up to thank me last week: "That was amazing! We never learned about this in Sunday School. It was fascinating to meet these people as people – and to learn about the complexity of this place in ways I never thought about before."
Balance can be tricky to achieve – and you never really can (and one person’s balance is another person’s propaganda), but it seems to me that if all we do for visitors is to confirm what they knew before they came, then there really is some kind of mutual exploitation going on here, and that’s not fair.