MR&H speaker series: CEO of MEJDI Tours talks conflict-zone tourism

(Conflict-zone tourism )

Aziz Abu Sarah is the CEO and co-founder of MEJDI Tours, a social enterprise that focuses on “introducing multi-narrative cultural education and responsible business practices to the travel industry.” Abu Sarah has served in the past as the executive director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University

In the field, Aziz has pioneered and managed projects in conflict resolution and community relations in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, the United States and other sites. In the media, Abu Sarah has produced and hosted the National Geographic web series Conflict Zone, a series that explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of Palestinian refugees, protestors, the Israeli Army, Jewish settlers, and more. Aziz has also published articles in the The New York Times, Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, Alarabiya, and others.

At the upcoming Mediterranean Resort & Hotel Real Estate Forum, Nov. 30-Dec. 2 at the Fairmont Rey Juan Carlos in Barcelona, Abu Sarah will offer a keynote: Building bridges: An innovative approach to tourism in challenging destinations.

Ahead of the conference, Abu Sarah talked about the role tourism can play in building bridges between cultures, and how his company is helping to educate visitors about both conflict and resolution. 

1. Your company presents an interesting dynamic. What is it?

Abu Sarah: Would you risk having both a Palestinian and Israeli tour guide leading your tour together, arguing their points of view? Or Catholic and Protestant tour guides in Northern Ireland, or Christian and Muslim tour guides in Egypt? This is exactly what our company, MEJDI Tours, does.

I co-founded MEJDI Tours with my Jewish friend, Scott Cooper, to be one of a handful of companies co-owned by a Palestinian and a Jew. Mejdi, an Arabic word that translates to both “honor” and “respect,” was established to change the face of tourism through a socially responsible business model that honors both clients and communities. 

One way we do this is through our two-guide model, which equips groups with two local guides, each representing unique cultural, religious, political, and ethnic narratives. This provides travelers with a more complete picture of the destination and its complexities. Because of our background in peace-building and conflict resolution, we are able to give our travelers unique, exclusive access to people and places that traditional tour operators aren't able to reach. 

2. What has been the impact of geopolitical issues (political instability, terrorism, etc.) in the Mediterranean? Which regions have been most affected and has it changed travelers’ behaviors and expectations?

Abu Sarah: Even before the war started in Syria, travelers were afraid to visit the Middle East. Now, we hear of terror attacks in France, Turkey, Egypt and Belgium, among others. In the face of a changing globe, people have started asking questions, wanting to learn more about what's going on in a region that used to seem very distant. They want to dig below the surface, and learn about more than just your usual archaeological and historical sites. They want to understand the social fabric, the culture and the challenges. So while the number of travelers to some countries is declining, we have found an increase in travelers who want to engage and make a difference.

3. How is your company responding to these challenges? Have you changed your offerings in the last year?

Abu Sarah: The safety of our travelers is our number-one priority. Many of the destinations mentioned above are still safe for travelers. However, we understand that people have concerns about their safety when considering traveling to these countries. We highlight our extensive experience working in conflict zones, which gives travelers more confidence in our ability to operate a safe trip. Instead of trying to sweep these challenges under the rug, we design our itineraries with the major issues of any destination in mind. For example, in Egypt, our travelers meet with liberals, Copts, Evangelicals, Salafi Muslims, officials, archaeologists, and hear from Muslim and Christian guides who initiate conversations about how the two communities deal with the challenges facing Egypt. 

In Israel and Palestine, our travelers are led by Palestinian and Israeli guides. We meet historians, religious leaders, politicians, artists, and journalists, in addition to all of the traditional religious and archaeological sites. We have dinner with Jewish families for Shabbat, and then have a Palestinian dinner on a different night with a local family. These experiences must be authentic, but also must be of interest to the travelers. In Turkey, we meet with Syrian refugees and learn about their lives in Turkey, but also do fun things with them including a cooking class learning about Syrian food. We meet with a variety of Turkish activists to learn about Turkey's current political challenges. These itineraries don't escape from the reality of the places we travel to, but rather find ways to instill hope and provide opportunities for positive engagement.

4. Which regions and destinations do you find most attractive in the region? Where would you like to go next?

Abu Sarah: Every region has multiple narratives. There is the dominant narrative that is often told on tours, and there are the subaltern narratives. My [job] is to find the the subaltern narratives in every destination, get access to people and sites and identify authentic experiences for our travelers. We have only worked in a handful of countries in Europe and we are excited about developing our model in more European countries.

5. What do you look forward to most at MR&H this year?

Abu Sarah: This is my first time to attend the MR&H conference, and I am excited to meet new people, learn about other innovative ideas in the region and, perhaps, collaborate on some new projects.

The Mediterranean Resort & Hotel Real Estate Forum is Nov. 30-Dec. 2 at the Fairmont Rey Juan Carlos in Barcelona. Click HERE for more information on the conference, the agenda and speakers and how to register.