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Toward Decolonization in Tourism: Engaged Tourism

May 17, 2017

2016 Issue 65  Journal of Palestine Studies 

In the context of the ongoing Zionist settler colonial project in Palestine, tourism has proven to be an important instrument in shaping images and imaginative geographies related to both Palestine and Israel. Consequently, the Palestinian reality has been widely erased from the Israeli-controlled tourism sector in historic Palestine. The Zionist settler colonial project has rendered Palestinians invisible not just by forcing them behind walls but also by coopting their food, crafts, and folklore or representing them as the eternal “other.” Correspondingly, tourism is a practice that normalizes these images and reorders and reshapes perceptions of people, places, and their relation to the world.[1] Research has documented how narratives in Israeli and Palestinian tours conflict as both sides present their version of the facts.[2] However, after participating on two very different tours in the Old City of Jerusalem, I began to think differently about the effect of these tours. Narratives are not just competing. They relate to each other according to the power imbalances between Palestinians and Israel, and are in fact deeply embedded in the ongoing colonial situation.

Sandeman’s New Jerusalem is an international company based in Germany that provides free daily tours in all major European cities and also in the Old City of Jerusalem, Jaffa and Tel Aviv.[3] In March 2014, I participated on the full day “holy city tour” and was guided around Jerusalem’s Old City with a group of international tourists. Kyle, our guide, was a Jewish-American man in his forties who had immigrated to Israel and now guided groups through the busy streets of the Old City.[4] The story he told us was focused on ancient history and biblical stories that came to life through his tour. The contemporary social or political situation was largely omitted. While we were strolling through the Christian quarter, he explained that“in the Middle East, religion is what makes you part of a community. It is very different from the West. You can identify through religion. In the Middle East everybody speaks Arabic, so you cannot identify through language, so religion is a means to identify yourself.”His generalization about the Middle East clearly gave my fellow tourists a story they could relate to. It was a familiar a lens through which they could understand Jerusalem and the Middle East in general.

Later, I went on another tour of the Old City, this time with an independent Palestinian guide from Jerusalem. He did not have the guiding certificate from the Israeli government. The tour put Kyle’s story into perspective. Seeing the city through the eyes of a Palestinian guide exposed colonial and Orientalist narratives that had been normalized in the previous tour. Nasser explained why religious symbols were omnipresent in Palestinian neighborhoods. They are means of identification, not just of religious zeal (although there were exceptions), because Israel prohibited Palestinians to publicly display their national flag. Deprived of this specific means to visually identify themselves, Palestinians use religious markers to distinguish themselves from Jewish Israelis. Kyle’s story of religion was suddenly taken out of its confined colonial truth and confronted with the political reality on the ground. What people such as my first guide recognized to be inherent qualities of the people of the Middle East are actually cultivated in power relations of colonialism and oppression. Nasser’s tour did more than oppose the Israeli colonial discourse, it pierced through Western, Orientalized categorizations. Story by story, he reordered the world in an anti-colonial image and called into question what tourists perceived as normal.

Kyle and Nasser’s stories are not coincidental; rather, they give us a glimpse of how tourism is intertwined with political processes, claims, and goals. Historically, tourism has been strongly embedded in colonial practices.[5] Holidaymaking and traveling have been used as propaganda tools to justify colonization and spread truths about colonizer and colonized.[6] We can therefore understand tourism as an instrument to convey and affirm narratives and images that remake people, places, and pasts in a politicized way.[7]Stories and images intended for tourists are often one-dimensional. They describe places in a ways that do no justice to their richness and complexity, for example by portraying Jerusalem as a site from biblical times. In this way, places and people are forced into a straightjacket, a tight script with which to comply.[8] Tourism is thus a business in which othering, essentializing, and myth creation are central to the production of its commodities.[9]

Adopting a postcolonial perspective, this paper positions tourism as an entry point to study the practicalities of settler colonialism in Palestine that is not confined in the Israeli-controlled borders but is sustained and its ideology spread on a global scale, as experienced in the Sandeman’s tour. However, learning from Nasser’s tour in the Old City, this paper also aims to raise the possibility of an emancipatory, anticolonial form of tourism. Through an explorative case study of the Jerusalem Tourism Cluster (JTC), it examines tourism’s potential in countering and exposing hegemonic images and practices generated by Zionism in historic Palestine that also tap into wider Orientalist tropes. The case study that follows is based on fieldwork conducted in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Israel, throughout 2014 and 2015. It consists of participant observation in tours and in-depth interviews with guides and other tourism workers, particularly those connected to the Jerusalem Tourism Cluster.

Tourism and Settler Colonialism

Tourism has played, and still plays, an important role in the colonization of Palestine by the Zionist movement. It became a decisive tool in demonstrating the success of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine and the achievements of the Jewish immigrants in Palestine. Most of the travel industry in the early 1900s was dominated by Arab guides and middlemen, who worked with international travel agencies such as Thomas Cook & Son.[10] Itineraries were designed to attract wealthy European and American travelers and focused mainly on ancient archeology and Christian and Muslim sites of importance.[11] Displeased with this situation, Zionist organizations tried to gain control over the tourism sector in order create a platform on which to transform the Arab image of Palestine into a Jewish-oriented one.[12] The Zionist Information Bureau, founded in 1925, embarked on a campaign to reimagine and reorder Palestine into the future Jewish state. In 1932, the bureau pressured Thomas Cook & Son and other tour operators to start contracting Jewish hotels, drivers, and guides in order to support the Zionist cause in Palestine.[13] The bureau developed new routes and guidebooks that focused solely on the achievements of Zionist migrants: visits to kibbutzim, Jewish factories, farms, and so on. In this way the Zionist organizations aimed to attract new investments from diaspora Jews and non-Jewish supporters of the Zionist cause, and at the same time to motivate Jewish tourists to stay in “Eretz Israel” after their visit.

Through the production of brochures, maps, and guidebooks, Zionist organizations such as the Zionist Information Bureau, the department of trade and industry of the Zionist Executive, and the Association of Jewish guides were essentially normalizing the presence of Jewish settlers in Palestine.[14] This effort to “indigenize” the settler population, an important characteristic of settler colonial projects, manifested in the co-option of indigenous cultural artifacts and practices.[15] In tourism, these practices of appropriation become visible and tangible. One only has to take a walk by the gift shops in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City to see the typical Hebron glass, Bethlehem olivewood carvings, or Palestinian embroidery being sold as Israeli souvenirs. In her work, Rebecca L. Stein observed that this kind of consumption of Arab food and culture happens in a denationalized manner, devoid of any Palestinian reference.[16] This way indigeneity can be controlled, disempowered, and appropriated. The same accounts for spaces. The city of Jaffa, for example, has become a popular destination in Israeli and international tourism. LeVine describes how the Israeli government promotes and presents Jaffa as a “typical Middle Eastern city, this however was only possible after most of its Arab population was violently forced out.”[17] The touristic consumption of Arab space in Israel entails the silencing of the history of violence inherent to the settler colonial project.

Through and within tourism, Palestinian presence is erased, silenced, or othered. This accounts for both Israeli and Palestinian tours. Jackie Feldman’s work illustrates how Palestinian shop owners in the Old City of Jerusalem are depicted by Israeli tour guides. They refer to them as the people from biblical times, unchanged and primitive.[18] Alternatively Israeli guides sometimes portray Palestinians as dangerous terrorists or unreliable crooks with whom not to talk and from whom not to buy.[19] Silencing not only occurs in Israeli-led tours. Palestinian guides who are licensed by the Israeli government, or have a permit to guide in Israel, often defer from talking about politics, oppression, or the Palestinian cause, out of fear of losing their jobs.[20] Others do the same simply because the political story is not what tourists want to hear, not part of what they are able to sell. Consequently, some Palestinian tour operators prefer to market packages to the “holy land” instead of “Palestine,” because it sounds less “dangerous” or “political” and is better known amongst tourists and pilgrims.[21]

Lastly, in the context of settler colonialism, tourism is an excellent platform to attract new settlers to the land. The contemporary Taglit or Birthright tourism to Israeli is a telling example. Young Jewish people from all over the world are invited for a well orchestrated and funded ten-day tour provided by Israel. It gives an exclusively Zionist reading of the places visited, reflected both in what its groups get to see and what remains invisible to them. Essentially, the enjoyment and fun of travel is dependent on young people shutting their eyes to the injustice of Israel’s colonialism.[22] The power of these tours is thus centered in the seemingly apolitical character of enjoying oneself. Moreover, these tours tend to strengthen the bond between Jewish people abroad and Israel to such an extent that we could speak of long-distance nationalism.[23]

Tourism as such is thus intrinsically implicated in the settler colonial complex: dispossession not only happens though violence but also through contingent touristic practices that erase Palestinian histories, cultural attributes, architecture, and so on. Through tourism, particular truths and claims are circulated, to create an order that serves Zionism’s project of settler colonialism in historic Palestine.

Anti-Colonial Opportunities in Engaged Tourism

Tourism offers a window on the practicalities of settler colonialism and how its logic is enacted through sightseeing, souvenirs, and fun. It opens a new space to study uneven power relations and oppression. Various authors, however, have encouraged us to think beyond tourism’s hegemonic embeddedness and see it as a potential force of emancipation.[24] Adrian Franklin’s work has been particularly salient in addressing the question of how tourism works. Franklin understands tourism as an “ordering force,” a means by which the social reality can be reordered.[25] Ordering is characterized by multiplicity and this implies that tourism does not just work to the benefit of the powerful, but in various ways.[26] As Hazel Tucker and John Akama point out, the colonized can subvert histories of colonization and continuous domination through the performance of tourism.[27] The subaltern can use tourism as a way to represent themselves as opposed to dominant colonial or Orientalized depictions of them.[28]

There is a growing movement among Palestinians to use tourism to generate a better understanding of the colonial situation in Palestine. Tourism represented only a marginal 4 percent of the gross domestic product of the occupied Palestinian territories (including East Jerusalem) in 2012, employing around 23 thousand people, mostly in the touristic hubs of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.[29] Within this, alternative tourism represents only a minor fraction of the tourism industry.Nevertheless, more and more tour operators and individual guides are engaging in this kind of tourism. Practitioners in Palestine have been describing this tourism in various ways: alternative tourism, community based tourism, justice tourism, or political tourism. Rami Kassis, the director of the Alternative Tourism Group in Bayt Sahur, Palestine, defines “alternative tourism” as “all tourism that is not controlled by Israeli companies.” Summing up different elements of alternative tourism, Kassis emphasizes that this tourism has in common an active engagement with Palestine. For him this engagement blurs common distinctions between “locals and visitors,” creating a dynamic in which tourism becomes almost “informal.”[30]

During interviews, several respondents agreed to this conceptualization of tourism but objected to using the term “alternative tourism.” They argued that “alternative tourism” evokes the idea of a Palestinian tourism that is alternative to the Israeli tourism. They emphasized that Palestinians are not to be considered the “alternative,” because they are the native inhabitants of the land. One guide put it this way: “some people don’t like ‘alternative tours,’ because they say: we are the original, as Palestinians we are not alternative. But it is attractive to the internationals, [so] we have to keep it. [There is] a big discussion about it.”[31] For the sake of going beyond the semantics of “alternative tourism,” I prefer to call them “engaged tours or tourism.” I aim to point to all forms of tourism in which practitioners manifest the Palestinian presence in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Israel, normalize them as the native populations, and make Palestinian culture and heritage visible.

The Jerusalem Tourism Cluster

The Jerusalem Tourism Cluster is one of the organizations promoting an engaged tourism that puts Palestinian, and more specifically Jerusalemite, culture front and center in the creation of touristic products. They are not the only ones working toward this re-ordering; other organizations (for example, the Alternative Tourism Group, the Siraj Center, and Masar Ibrahim al-Khalil) have a similar approach. However, the JTC is an umbrella organization that is concerned with the development of tourism in Jerusalem specifically. The cluster started operating in 2009, aiming to bring together partners from the tourism industry and socio-cultural organizations in order to create new touristic products that aim to more “accurately” portray Jerusalem and its Palestinian inhabitants.

According to the JTC, “there is no tourism in Jerusalem, only pilgrims. Essentially there are not enough activities to attract people, the packages don’t reflect diversity and Jerusalem is not a destination but a station [on the touristic routes].”[32]To address this perceived problem, the JTC started developing new touristic programs that sought to change tourism in the city in such a way that the Palestinian population could benefit from it. In the process, JTC brought into being objects and narratives that not only undermine the Israeli hegemony, but also aim to reorder the social touristic reality in Jerusalem and beyond, producing new representations and truths about Palestine and Palestinians. In what follows, I will question how practices that are constitutive to tourism also redefine or shape perceptions of identity, culture, or heritage.[33]

Touristic Infrastructure

Given the Israeli control over infrastructure and public spaces in Jerusalem, it is very difficult for Palestinians to develop the city in their own image, including through the construction of hotels, restaurants, or other touristic infrastructure. The Israeli authorities rarely grant building permits to Palestinians. Consequently one of the spheres in which the JTC tries to maneuver around these restrictions is what they call “tourism’s soft infrastructure.” This mainly covers touristic services, products, and activities and also branding the city as a Palestinian destination.[34] The cluster does so in different ways. One of their initiatives is the Web site and the accompanying mobile application. The medium brings Palestinian businesses and sites of potential interest to the tourist’s attention. The Web site mentions both Christian and Muslim sites in the Old City, but omits the Jewish ones. This, according to the director, is still too sensitive. Promoting guides through the Web site is also problematic, as many Palestinian guides, especially those doing political tours, operate without an Israeli license. They fear exposure to and punishment from Israeli authorities by being posted as a guide on the Web, because the Israeli government only allows licensed guides to operate in Israel and East Jerusalem. This was also confirmed in interviews with unlicensed Palestinian guides who explained that they mostly promote their services by word of mouth to avoid getting in trouble with the Israeli authorities.[35]

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