Raed Saadeh \ Chairman of Rozana Association

“Abu Samer welcomed us warmly and his family prepared a village chicken specialty that is called musakhan for us. We spoke of many things and we told each other stories of life and humanity. We laughed a lot and then went together to visit the women’s association in the village. They explained to us what they were doing and showed us some of their handicrafts. Insaf, the director of the association, was a great and knowledgeable person. She took us on a short stroll through the historic area of the village, where we visited the old oil press as well as the old flour mill. She told us some of her childhood stories, such as when she escorted her father to bring their olive harvest to the oil press and described the excitement of the villagers over their harvest as they got together at the oil press…”

This is an excerpt from a letter that we received from one of our guests after he visited a village next to Birzeit. The excited tone of the letter, which went on and on, shows the type of interaction exchange that experiential tourism can generate. This leads to the questions, is there experiential tourism in Palestine, what is its added value, and how does it relate to alternative tourism and the private and public sector efforts?.
The term “alternative” has confused people who work in the tourism industry. But, to a large extent, many seek a different type of experience from the prevailing pilgrimage tourism that currently exists in Palestine. Today, there is a Palestinian initiative that brings together a number of specialised civil society organizations that collectively represent a foundation for experiential tourism in Palestine. The initiative is called NEPTO.

NEPTO stands for Network of Experiential Palestinian Tourism Organisations. The emphasis is on experiential and not alternative. Alternative for NEPTO, as was decided by all of its members, does not describe the entity or its activities. “Experiential” tourism applies to all kinds of tourism, including pilgrimage tourism. The distinction is that experiential tourism takes a community-based approach and employs interpretive methods in design, planning, and implementation. For the time being, there are hardly any private sector initiatives in Palestine that use the above concepts. NEPTO consolidates the efforts of 18 different civil society organisations. Their areas of interest, knowledge, and skill produce an interesting representation of experiential tourism in Palestine. Some organisations are involved in designing a number of thematic tours and paths throughout Palestine, such as the Nativity trail, Palestinian heritage trail, and the Sufi trails. Some are involved in advancing community encounters and explorations, such as a number of one-day trips to Hebron and Bethlehem. Others are involved in organising rural, cultural, heritage, and agricultural festivals. There are also a number of organisations that advance fair trade, environmental and wild life protection, and the rehabilitation and preservation of architectural heritage, particularly in rural Palestine. Many programs employ local guides and incorporate home stays into their itineraries.

The development of Palestinian tourism should be a collective, holistic, and horizontal effort. All tourism organisations and stakeholders, including the private sector, have a role to play, and the accrued result is a two-pronged effort. First, are the private sector organisations, such as the Arab Hotel Association and The Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Association. Governmental laws, regulations, and incentives are also vital to promoting business investments. Second, are the community-based efforts and practices. Experiential tourism does not only link the community to its potential economic drivers in tourism, it advances the whole sector by investigating different types of tourism activity such as ecological, cultural, historical, and solidarity tourism. Both private sector initiatives and experiential tourism efforts are important. This does not eliminate the role of the public sector. Indeed, the support that the government is willing to offer the tourism sector remains a key factor in advancing both related investments and experiential products.

Historically, the Palestinian private sector has been static, lacking research and development efforts, and shying away from any potential crisis. Experiential tourism, on the other hand, connects to the local community and helps create an enabling, welcoming, and involved environment that is empowered and willing to advance the entire tourism sector, thus securing its sustainability. Experiential tourism organisations have invested heavily in research and development, seeking a specific identity for the Palestinian tourism product. This distinction or differentiation is what Palestine needs in order or compete with other regional offers and in order to expand the market it attracts. A public, private, and civil society partnership is needed to advance collective efforts and opportunities to create dynamic and proactive tourism in Palestinian. The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has acknowledged and supported the role and the added value generated by experiential efforts and has recognised the representative role that NEPTO plays in this respect.
Experiential tourism is a worldwide phenomenon, and, through it, Palestine has succeeded in branding its specialised products. This is a great opportunity to indirectly brand Palestinian initiatives. Networking and partnerships is an effective strategy and an ideal way to promote specialized products such as experiential tourism. Local endeavours can find their place on global sites by seeping through or bleeding into similar international project sites and references. This is a bottom up approach in branding Palestine. A top down branding scheme would be to promote Palestine as a destination along with all its potential products and activities. Both top-down and bottom-up approaches are complementary branding initiatives. Palestine needs all channels and means to improve its image as a safe and exciting tourism destination

Experiential tourism should benefit communities and help protect the natural and cultural heritage of the local people. Without a thoughtful approach to the development of tourism activities, tourism can damage natural areas and create problems for the local communities nearby.
Experiential tourism development should begin with the intention of helping a local community. Therefore, local people must be involved in the planning and delivery of the experiences, even if government or NGO partners are providing support for the program.
Experiential tourism encourages the employment of local community guides and helps to train them. Local people understand and can better communicate the feeling of the area to visitors. The activities in a community-based experience can be as simple as engaging visitors with the local food, beautiful scenery, and daily activities of agriculture and story telling.

Using an interpretive approach to communication with visitors deepens the value of a tourism experience. Although interpretation includes information, it requires more than simply giving details or facts about the geographic area or local culture. When an interpretive approach is taken, the tourist experience becomes more enjoyable and fulfilling, encouraging people to return and to tell others about their discoveries. They are more likely to bring others along on future visits. As their knowledge of the community grows, they are more likely to look for positive ways to be involved in the community, such as helping build a needed hospital or school, or even helping to preserve important cultural sites or natural areas. Using an interpretive approach that connects visitors with the place and local people and establishes lasting relationships can help achieve beneficial results a community needs and avoid any negative results that might occur.

Handicrafts, traditional clothes, local products, local food, and other similar items are of great interest to experiential tourists. If tourists make a strong cultural connection with the community, these items also make the perfect souvenirs, a way to carry a small piece of the experience home.
Interpretation has always been a part of community life. When an elder helps a young person understand the traditions of the community, he or she is interpreting the culture. When songs, dances, or stories are shared, that is also interpretation. They help community members connect with the past and understand their own culture. This is where the essence of intercultural exchange starts. Tourists come from very different backgrounds. Local communities need to understand their visitors in order to help them appreciate local community resources.
In 1957, Freeman Tilden, an American playwright, wrote a book entitled Interpreting our Heritage. In it he wrote, “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” Interpretive communication helps people understand and appreciate their resources so that they become inspired to protect them.