Tourism is a business involving a billion people a year meeting several other billion people whose lives they profoundly affect economically and socially. The question for the future is whether that effect is going to be negative or positive, peaceful or destructive.
I want to argue that it is all up to us travelers.
Recently, in the major Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot, there appeared a picture of a beautiful little girl holding and aiming a machine gun almost her own size, being coached by a smiling soldier in fatigues in a West Bank settlement in the Occupied Territories. The caption mentioned how many foreigners come on tours and are given this kind of exposure.
This is a very different kind of tourism and educational seminar experience than the kind I and my colleagues have been running for years in Israel and Palestine, Egypt and other countries. When we bring people to these regions we expose them to what we refer to as "dual narratives," which roughly translates into a deep exposure to the many cultures and religions of a region, some of whom are often in a state of conflict. The travelers have fun, they love the exposure, but they also positively engage all people, and do not become part of the problem. They "do no harm."
Tours and seminars either bind the people of a region together through sympathetic and respectful outsiders, or they serve to further divide people.
There is certainly a sickness in many settlements in the Occupied Territories, and there are Israelis who live with a bunker mentality, ready to live and die by their guns. But everywhere, even in the settlements, there are very different residents and neighbors, both Jewish and Arab, people who you may disagree with but who authentically want to meet their neighbors and stop living by the gun. This is true between Israel and Palestine, this is even true between Iran and Israel, as many recent citizen driven campaigns have shown in recent months. Tourists can either be a bridge or a barrier, an hindrance or a help to the desperate situation of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and many other conflicts around the world.
, a different kind of tourism than mine, where tourists come to get this kind of exposure.
Did we not in the West used to be horrified at seeing child Hamas recruits with toy weapons? The sad psychoanalytic reality of war is how much people paint the worst image of their enemy through propaganda and so-called intelligent analysis, but then proceed to unconsciously, over time, become their own worst nightmare by copying that negative image of the enemy. This is a rule of physics in long term wars. Only conscious people, thinking people, empathetic people, wake up and steer their culture away from these unconscious suicides. Citizens, traveling citizens, can be the best global diplomats in the world. No one is paying them or controlling them, they want to enjoy a nonviolent experience, and they are prepared to greet strangers. We need them as part of the world's march in a better, less violent direction.
Marc Gopin is co-owner of MEJDI Tours, as well as Director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, George Mason University.