What is Palestine? Every time I hear this name, I can’t help but think of all the perceptions created about it. This is not a small matter when thinking about promoting Palestine. How can all the perceptions and stereotypes be dealt with in order to convey the true face of Palestine?When I went to Syracuse University in upstate New York, I had a discussion about perceptions with my economics professor who was originally from Czechoslovakia. He told me, “Beware of the media; the most accurate piece of information is the weather report, which is only 85% wrong.”Having said that, I still believe that Palestine has a lot to offer. This is not only true in the traditional tourism sense, but also in the globally growing field of experiential tourism. When I think of Palestine, I imagine the Sparrowhawk. It is a resident bird of Palestine. It is a small bird of prey, but it is quite capable. It is one of my favourite birds and I used to go out into the Palestinian landscape just to get a glimpse of this great bird riding the winds and commanding the skies. For me, it is representative of Palestine. It is small but capable. Indeed, Palestine is a small country, but it possesses a diverse and varied product in terms of landscape, climate, culture, people, stories, and history. I would like to present some of this diversity that Palestine can offer its visitors, both domestic and foreign. In my capacity as the chairman of the Rozana Association, and because of the nature of work we do in rural tourism development, I will focus on the experiential Palestinian tourism potential, rather than restating the well-known pilgrimage travel package.Palestine’s experiential tourism takes into consideration a number of underlying principles that makes it unique. Palestine offers visitors a code of ethics that forms the platform necessary for people from different cultures to get together, to indulge in cultural exchanges and to experience the details that formulate Palestinian daily life. The code of ethics is essentially a document that came about as a result of an initiative led by Alternative Tourism Group (ATG) to summarize what is expected of both the visitor and the host in responsible tourism. Packages are designed to expose the multiple historic layers, to promote socio-economic development, and to meet the local community. Most importantly, however, Palestine provides a safe, secure, and enjoyable encounter.Father Sigrist, from the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem is a righteous, wise, and knowledgeable man. He has had a lot of experience taking people on special mosaic, tombs or nature tours. He has often reiterated to me that in Palestine, we need to offer visitors silence. By that, I believe he means that Palestine has the potential to offer visitors a spiritual experience. This is taken into consideration in the experiential tourism package, and considerable attention is given to travel dynamics, space and landscape assimilation, and shrines and monuments integration. Shrines, historic monuments, and castles are spread all over the Palestinian landscape. They are great venues to visit as many command beautiful hilltops, contribute to the wealth of local popular stories and link people to the thousands of years of history that runs in their veins. Many of these monuments belong to Sufi traditions or are Byzantine mosaics, caravansaries, or Roman tombs to name a few. The Rozana Association has embarked on an endeavour to delineate a number of Khans and Sufi paths and trails. I have just returned from the Adventure Travel World Summit that took place in Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands. Different countries had many packages to offer. A considerable number of these offers take into consideration sustainable, socially and economically responsible packages. Some others bragged about their mountain ranges and diverse ecosystems. I thought to myself again, Palestine is small but capable; we command the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea located next to Jericho, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Jericho, which is celebrating its 10,000 birthday this year, is part of one of several ecosystems that exist in this small country. The Jordan Valley offers a unique climate and a diverse flora and fauna system because it lies 300 meters below sea level. Palestine also offers part of the mountain range that runs through Syria and Lebanon. The Palestinian mountains are ecologically and geographically different from the Jordan Valley. Most of Palestine’s rural network is scattered all over the mountain range. Hiking through the landscape, which is typically commanded by the famous olive tree, one may encounter fresh water springs, Ottoman water mills, Roman water canals and harvest watchtowers commonly known in Palestine as “palaces”.The Palestinian desert, although perceived as arid and harsh, conceals in its topography many desert palaces, Byzantine monasteries and Sufi shrines. Desert hilltops are likely locations of ancient Canaanite kingdoms or Roman garrisons. Still, somewhere in the desert skies, a Sparrowhawk would be quietly circling the landscape with effortless stature and keen overview.Organized desert excursions include sleeping in Bedouin tents, walking the landscape, and drinking tea mixed with herbs picked directly from the rock cracks. A vital part of the experiential tour package and an important pillar in differentiating the Palestinian tourism product remains to be discovered. Palestine possesses a rich and varied culture. Fortunately it has found many venues to reach out to visitors through the various rural festivals that take place throughout the year. Some rural festivals coincide with certain harvest seasons like the olive, the apricot and the lettuce harvests, while others package the available resources and capacities to offer the visitor a unique and rich experience like the Heritage Week in Birzeit or Sebastya Festival.Once I asked my doctor for a vitamin supplement. His immediate reaction was: why? I was a bit puzzled when he said I don’t really need it as Palestine offers a healthy and organic cuisine. This is not surprising, being part of the Mediterranean; the landscape provides a lot of herbs, produce, and fresh fruits throughout the year. Palestine’s cuisine is exquisite and varied. Different towns and villages often offer different versions of the same dishes characterized by the addition of special herbs, texture, and content.I am often confronted with the question, “Are Palestinians Arab?” I used to think so without giving it too much attention. However, after thinking about it more, it strikes me that Palestine is a melting pot. Indeed, the prevailing culture is Arab and Muslim, however, how do we categorize the Armenians, the Assyrians, the Gypsies, the Africans, the Moroccans, the Kurds, the Indians, the Turks and so on and so forth? In fact, the cultures of many of these ethnic groups are strong and evident. A walk in the wondrous Old City of Jerusalem with all of its fragrances and colourful shops, or a short trip to any Palestinian city can expose a lot of the demographic mix to the discerning eye. I personally see this as strength and an added value to the Palestinian fabric. We are able to offer a diverse and varied culture in such a small country like Palestine. Hence, I think of the Sparrowhawk: small yet capable, which is how I would like to promote Palestine-keeping in mind the great potential of resources and capacities that have yet to be incorporated in the tourism package.
Raed Saadeh is the chairman of the Rozana Association in Birzeit, and founder and board member of several art, cultural, tourism, and fair-trade organizations.
Original Published in " this week in Palestine " Issue No. 151, November 2010 .