Tent of Nations 2019 [2]: Research Goals and Interests (June 7)

[to see my bibliography, please go here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1La6vZm8vfqfxbtBhwB3xcz0uM53QZ6bFRMzqxL199iQ/edit?usp=sharing]

11:00 pm, June 7th, Wesley House

I was reading last night from a collection of essays and articles called “Global Mountain Regions”, a collection curated by Anne Kingsolver and Sasikumar Balasundaram, the latter of whom informally advised me as I started this project. One short essay was called Palestinian Responsible Tourism for Cross-Cultural Understanding, written by A. Jaber, and Michel Awad.

The essay described the Siraj Center Project, a tourism initiative designed to bring tourists in the Holy Land closer to the real lives and struggles of the residents in Palestine. The project is done through partnerships for designing trails and structuring home-stays with locals in Palestinian villages and towns that, for the most part, receive very little tourism attention. These Palestinian locations which bring tourists closest to the land and community they are exploring are so frequently overlooked because of media portrayal of Palestine in European and North American outlets. Holy Land tours are also often conducted through large tour companies, which conduct bus tours to major historical and religious sites without elaborating on political or cultural situations facing Palestinians today, and some which explore the area through a sternly Zionist lens.

A model of tourism the Siraj Center wishes to emulate is that of “responsible tourism”, which is a concept mentioned again and again in the article. I hadn’t encountered that phrase before, so I did some exploring. “Responsible tourism” can be loosely understood as a form of tourism which takes into account the experiences of the native peoples of the area, the environmental impact of visitation, and the social and economic effects of tourism—and attempts to make tourism to the area as beneficial in those capacities as possible for the communities which exist there (Spencely et al., 2002; Mathew, P. & Sreejesh, S. 2016). While claims to responsible tourism can be laid by any tour company and therefore isn’t 100% reliable as a label (Mathew, P. & Sreejesh, S. 2016), true responsible tourism, as it turns out, can be easily juxtaposed against “voluntourism”. One of the key differences between voluntourism and responsible tourism is the starting motivation: responsible tourism (in the Siraj Center model and Tent of Nations) is an invitation to visitors from locals to a mutually beneficial conversation, where voluntourism is more frequently spearheaded by visitors and motivated by the visitors’ own aspirations.

I tend to approach volunteer tourism (or voluntourism as it’s also called) skeptically. Voluntourism is a recent phenomenon of tourists from Western nations (often European, US or Canadian tourists) traveling to developing nations to provide less than six weeks of unpaid service and volunteering to the communities they reach, often through large tourism agencies. Much of voluntourism is religious in nature, often called mission work by Christians. The popularity of voluntourism has boomed since the late twentieth century (Guttentag, D. A., 2009), and is now stationed as a very large subsection of the greater tourism industry. The subgenres of voluntourism stem from differing motivations for service, and range from religious to business to medical to ecological reasons to travel.


Since the late 2000s criticism has grown towards the voluntourism industry because of its lack of regulation and evaluation (Guttentag, D. A., 2009); the untrained attitudes of volunteers towards the cultures and needs of local communities (McLennan, S., 2014; Guttentag, D. A., 2009); the economic ethics of giving free outside untrained labor to native communities, which may have skilled laborers willing to do work, but who are unable to compete with the low price of volunteer work (Lupton, R. D., & Miller, A., 2016); the industrial attitude of voluntourist agencies not consulting with locals about their wants or needs (Guttentag, D. A., 2009; Lupton & Miller 2016); and at worst, its potential to harken back to colonialist attitudes about nations in the Global South (Garland, C, 2015; McLennan, S., 2014).


The work is often done without regard for its long-term efficacy or sustainability, but rather because the act of giving help or aid makes volunteers feel good (Lupton & Miller, 2016). The benefits for volunteers are many: from new resume items to supposed widened global perspectives, opportunities to feel altruistic and opportunities to travel, and a lens to view their home countries better. However, one who looks more critically at voluntourism might ask why volunteers don’t just stay home and volunteer in their own communities, since plenty of work there still needs to be done.


Tent of Nations fits into this discussion because, like the Siraj Center, it’s a different model of volunteering internationally—the invitation is extended by the farm, with specific needs listed (Summer Camp in July, grape harvest in August, building project in September, and so on), and members of the local community educating volunteers about the culture and political situation in Palestine both inside and outside the West Bank. Volunteers for the children’s summer camp will not arrive on a guided volunteer tour; instead, their stay is guided by the farmer and his family, and directions for the work done are well defined and relevant. The reliance has shifted—from reliance of the locals on visitors, to reliance of the visitors on locals.

So, in effect, my research will start with my becoming a voluntourist in Palestine, but following a very unconventional model for such a trip that I hope will be constructive enough to deem it “responsible tourism”, or even “justice tourism”, a newly defined branch of tourism.

In the next post I will discuss exactly what that will look like.


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