The days of the Grand Tours of the 19th century are over. Back in those days travelers – aristocrats, writers, and the children of the upper classes – would set out from Britain, Europe and the Americas on a quest to see and -meet new cultures.
The journeys were undertaken at a leisurely pace lasting months, and even years, sometimes exploring the roots of Western culture in Italy, France and Greece, and others, farther afield, to India, Africa, and the Middle East.
A good example is the American writer Mark Twain who visited the Holy Land in 1867 and reported on his experiences in his book “The Innocents Abroad.”
Like many writers of his era, Twain viewed foreign cultures from a superior Western perspective. His impression of the Sea of Galilee was, “a solemn, sailless, tintless lake, as unpoetical as any bath-tub on earth.”
During his visit to Bethlehem he described the Church of the Nativity as “tricked out in the usual tasteless style observable in all the holy places of Palestine.”
His view of the Holy Land was not flattering: “Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince… Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land? “Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies.”
As for the travelers who visited, Twain had the following to say: “The incorrigible pilgrims have come in with their pockets full of specimens broken from the ruins. I wish this vandalism could be stopped. They broke off fragments from Noah’s tomb; from the exquisite sculptures of the temples of Baalbec; from the houses of Judas and Ananias, in Damascus; from the tomb of Nimrod the Mighty Hunter in Jonesborough; from the worn Greek and Roman inscriptions set in the hoary walls of the Castle of Banias; and now they have been hacking and chipping these old arches here that Jesus looked upon in the flesh. Heaven protect the Sepulchre when this tribe invades Jerusalem!”
Since the days of the Grand Tours, travel has undergone immense changes, first with rail and steamship travel and then the airplane which gradually made travel into a mass phenomenon.
Different segments of travel developed. The biggest one is “SSS” (sun, sea and sand) and leisure where tourists flock in masses to cities, resorts, and beaches, “consuming” culture, souvenirs and entertainment.
Against consumer-centered travel, sustainable tourism emerged as a counter travel ideology.
Within sustainable tourism, we are witnessing a growing trend of tourists who want to turn the travel experience into an experience that is more meaningful than just seeing, touching, or speaking with the locals, instead seeking out an experience that will leave a positive footprint on the places and societies they visit.
Step by step, more and more travelers and more and more travel programs and tours are adopting this ideology.
Three great travel options: Voluntourism, reaching out to excluded populations and supporting local businesses
If you are planning a trip to Israel, the country – which today is a lot different to the Holy Land as described by Mark Twain – has plenty on offer if you are looking for travel with meaning.
Voluntourism: The merger of volunteering and tourism, where people travel to do good in foreign communities, is one of the fastest growing trends in tourism.
Israel has several interesting voluntourism avenues for internationals (and locals). For example – an IDF volunteer program, soup kitchens, animal farms, centers for the elderly and even volunteering at local hostels.
One of these great projects is Leket, which collects food to distribute to the needy. According to the organization’s annual 2020 report they collected almost 20,000,000 tons of food and provided 246,000 weekly meals.
Travelers from all around the world pitch in and help pick fruits and vegetables from fields and farms and distribute it to the people who need it most.
The Nitzan Association Therapeutic Farm for Youth at Risk is a great project next to Yeruham in southern Israel that supports youth at risk through a special therapeutic model – wilderness therapy and adventure therapy.
The farm accepts visits from volunteers who help develop the farm, and from groups that are interested in learning more about this special adventure therapy project. In the last three years some 6,500 volunteers have assisted the farm and helped make big progress with this project.
Meet and support excluded communities: This is a great way to meet the Israel and the Israelis you would never normally meet. There are various programs in Israel that encourage people and communities, such as former sex workers, ex-convicts, disabled people and the elderly, to aspire to change and improve their lives.
Hearing the personal stories of Israel subcultures such as Black Israelites, ultra-Orthodox art and graffiti, and Hozrim BeShe’ela (ultra-Orthodox Jews who became secular) and more is a great way to meet, listen and absorb personal moments of lives that change themselves and the society around them. All these meetings are directly with the people themselves and not through a third party.
Supporting small businesses: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought great hardship on small businesses. Tours in cities and in the countryside can be an excellent way of meeting people on a personal level to learn about their stories and businesses and try their food and products.
You have a much bigger impact when stopping by and buying something from small and micro businesses.
In Jerusalem, there is an interesting local culinary tour with Alex that takes small groups to restaurants and coffee shops of business owners who are all olim (new immigrants to Israel).
It is an excellent way to learn about people that came to the country from all around the world and hear their personal stories, and try out their culinary specialties from their home countries.
“I understand that the past year has been quite a difficult one for everyone, but as an oleh hadash (new immigrant to Israel), there is an added challenge of being in a new country,” says Alex.
“I found it important to find a way to support fellow olim who made an effort to open up small businesses. Due to travel restrictions, Israelis found themselves traveling around Israel, and with our tour it gave the local population an opportunity to at least taste the flavors of being abroad.”