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Political tourism is a type of special interest tourism whereby the tourist seeks to participate in or manifest solidarity with a political struggle that is taking place or has taken place “elsewhere” in the world (Maureen Moynagh,2008), where the visitor will explore the complexity of the cultural relationships in the destinations involved in violent conflicts.
It is now growing as people are breaking the silence and empathizing more with social and political injustice worldwide. A wave of change is forming to fight for more human rights to reach a sustainable world. This article focuses on political tourism in the Middle East region.
Conflicts in the Middle East have been a fundamental fact of politics in the region since the end of the First World War in 1918. Because of its economic, religious, and geographical location, the Middle East has been central to many world issues and political affairs. The ongoing wars in the region show no sign of ending.
Responsible tourism is about "making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit." (World Summit on Sustainable Development,2022). As all types of tourism are driven increasingly in this direction, can political tourism in the Middle East be considered a responsible form of tourism? To answer this question, three case studies were analyzed in Palestine and Lebanon.
An inspiring example of political tourism is Mejdi Tours in Palestine. Founded in 2009 by two peacebuilder practitioners, Aziz Abu Sarah, and Scott Cooper, these tours can be considered socially conscious for several reasons. Tourists can visit Jewish settlements and Palestinian villages and offer a diverse cultural program. The tours are based on the two narratives and interaction with the local communities in both regions. The tourist will have his perceptions about the conflict on this land challenged.
These tours focus on thinking as complexity awareness and perspective skills where the
tourists will absorb the understanding of and skills in working with complex and systemic conditions and casualties, as well as skills in seeking and actively making use of insights from contrasting perspectives (IDGs report, 2021). Mejdi tours unite people and spread the importance and possibility of coliving in conflicts, where inclusivity is the key. Although we can consider that the tours lack one part, the highlight that should focus on “The segregation wall” is his impact in marginalizing the community living along it. It is a must-see place in Palestine; one can experience the consequences of racist political decisions. The livelihoods became increasingly challenging, with the whole area being transformed into a ghost area.
On the other hand, one of the most known political tours to date is the tour held by
Alternative Tourism Group, in Palestine as well. Established in 1995, ATG has been operating as responsible justice tourism. Justice tourism is broadly conceptualized as deliberate travel to support social, political, and environmental sustainability (Rami K. Issac,2022). One of the main objectives for ATG is creating opportunities for the local communities and contributing towards establishing rightful peace in the area. The diversity of activities and the unique experiences offered by this tour operator engages the tourists more with the Palestinians and help break the prejudice. During the tour, travelers will visit prominent points of interest, such as refugee camps and the “segregation wall,” and pass several checkpoints. The tours have a clear framework of the being, working on openness and a learning mindset to enhance the reevaluation and curiosity about alternative ways of perceiving and interpreting various issues. The visitors will witness political history, oppression, and hardships with their own eyes. The volunteer works and homestays with local Palestinian families offered are ways to enrich the understanding of the culture and give insights into the daily life of the Palestinians.
This tour works with empathy and compassion as the ability to relate to others, oneself, and nature with kindness and the intention to address related suffering. Empathy and compassion are, of course, important components of emotional intelligence (IDGs report, 2021). Travelers will develop a sense of belonging to a political struggle, not their own, and express their personal and political solidarity, despite the complexity of such cross-cultural relationships(Moynagh,2008). The tours focus more on efforts to remove the “segregation wall,” highlighting what the wall represents: dramatic racial discrimination.
Another tour operator in the Middle East, Political Tours, offering tours in Lebanon, can be considered as a counter-discourse of the above examples. Once considered the “Paris of the Middle East,” Lebanon suffers from the ramifications of a civil war, a Syrian occupation and armed conflicts with Israel. The country has a diverse social fabric of religious, ethnic, and cultural differences. Due to the conflicts in the region, the country is hosting millions of Palestinian and Syrian refugees living in critical political instability. Therefore, Lebanon holds the fertile ground to grow political tourism, given the described situation. However, Political Tours cannot be considered a form of responsible travel where the refugees are not acknowledged as part of the society but as a tourist product. The tourist will visit the Palestinian camps (or more slums), where the inhabitants are considered as outsiders. No interaction is held, with a total absence of inclusivity. This tour highlights their poor living conditions as a tour of a “human zoo.”The other part of the tour consists of a discussion with some best-known political leaders to give the tourist a perspective of the situation from the top-bottom approach, politicians that are considered the reason behind this instability and social injustice. In contrast, Political Tours could have created an opportunity by hiring refugees as guides, letting them tell the political history of the country through their daily life challenges. In that way, tourists, locals, and internationals will have learned more about compassion and empathy through the journey of the refugees. Palestinians are finding it hard to have their voices heard, and intensive efforts are needed to ensure that the Palestinian's voices are heard in tourism (Rami K. Issac,2022).
As mentioned above, showcasing human rights violations and raising awareness among travelers from different nations (SDG 16: Peace, justice, and strong institutions) is the main positive impact political tourism has, giving a voice to marginalized communities and highlighting forgotten cases (SDG 10: Reduced inequalities). Although, it is worth mentioning that people worldwide are being selective and taking sides when empathizing (not all tragedies are treated equally) and that “Victors write history.” Political tourism can connect the world by breaking the prejudice about certain countries or cases in the history of humanity (IDGs: Being, Thinking, Relating) due to the social media era.
But, there is a thin line between selling and commodifying a social and political cause and making a significant contribution to people's lives through a responsible tourism agenda. The human element is sometimes lost, and the community is projected as a tourist product, taking advantage of people’s tragedies.
Travel is one of the most powerful resources for creating a better planet. When designed in the right way and framed by transparency, awareness, and social responsibility, political tourism can be the voice fighting against injustice, exclusivity, and marginalization where the historical and political conflicts are highlighted as a lesson to learn from and a road towards more justice, inclusivity and empathy and not sold as a tourist product. Political tourism can be used as a tool to help break the stigma built around refugee camps for those communities asking for justice and a voice. Justice can be reached by raising awareness, disabling stereotypes, and breaking down barriers. A voice that can be given and heard by the two narratives in the story to be told. To achieve this, political tourism should be responsibly approached beyond borders and headlines.
“We exist to create a more peaceful and interconnected world through travel.” (Mejdi Tours)
Maureen Anne Moynagh. Political Tourism and Its Texts. Toronto, University Of Toronto Press, 2008.
Bloch, Natalia, and Kathleen Adams. Intersections of Tourism, Migration, and Exile. Routledge, 30 Dec. 2022.