Friday, August 20, 2010
Day 232-Tourism for a better world
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The market in Hebron
The Tree of Life
Dome of the Rock
Dear Mr. President,
Tony Blair recently suggested that more people visit the West Bank as a means to supporting the peace process. Visiting Palestine, stimulating the economy by enjoying local food and crafts and services, witnessing firsthand the hospitality of many Palestinians- these are all small steps toward better understanding and communication. I loved my own time there, and I can't wait to go back. But I've also lived in tourist destinations. The complicated relationship between a place, its people, and the people who just come for vacation. Try riding the Metro during summer time in DC. The strict order of things breaks down. Suddenly no one knows that you stand on once side of the escalator, walk on the other. Lines get longer, crowds get bigger. I remember days when I couldn't go from my metro stop to work without being asked for directions several times. Even here in Seattle, Pike Place Market swells with visitors as soon as the warm weather starts.
Local business depend upon these visitors to eat at restaurants, fill hotel rooms, and purchase absurd souvenirs. But Tourists often treat their destinations like personal playgrounds, with no regard for local customs or culture, no respect for the people paid to serve them, and no concern for the long-term interests of the city. They come, they consume, they go. Tourism might be a great way to promote cross-cultural understanding, but I wonder if this can be done without fundamentally changing the places we visit.
If you join Tony Blair in encouraging Americans to travel to the Middle East- to ease tensions through casual, non-political interaction- I think that you should do so with caution. Americans should travel to other countries, we should learn about other cultures and we should try to experience life outside of our own comfortable perceptions of reality. But we should do what we can to mitigate the harmful influence we might have, by respecting the people, and the environments that we visit. I think that Tony Blair's heart is in the right place, that we can do more good traveling and learning from one another than we can with bullets and bombs and economic sanctions. I hope that people take his advice and explore the beautiful and hospitable places in Palestine that I fell in love with two years ago.
And, if they have layovers in DC, I hope that people learn which side of the escalator is for standing.
If any of my readers are interested in going to Palestine, please consider doing so with The Abraham Path Initiative or The Siraj Center. If you'd like to donate to projects that help others travel to Palestine, please visit Global Giving.