Today, the Studienkreis für Tourismus und Entwicklung e.V., Ammerland (Institute for Tourism and Development) announced the winners of the international Contest for Socially Responsible Tourism TO DO! in the framework of the 41st International Tourism Exchange in Berlin. The TO DO! 2006 was awarded to the successful entries from Argentina and Palestine. The laudation was given by the Israeli University Lecturer for Hebrew Literature, Dr. Haim Weiss, member of the Israeli-Palestinian Ex-Soldier Group "Combatants for Peace". The prize moneys were again provided by the "Swiss Foundation for Solidarity in Tourism" and the "European Reiseversicherung" (European Travel Insurance Corp.).
Among the TO DO! 2006 winners are the small-holder association CAMINOS DE ALTAMIRA from the Argentinean city of La Consulta (Mendoza Province) and the Palestinian non-governmental organisation ALTERNATIVE TOURISM GROUP from Beit Sahour, Palestine. Both contestants were able to stand up to the on-site assessment.
"A distinctive feature in this twelfth round of the contest is that - as in 1996 - we can once more award the TO DO! to a project from Palestine", said Armin Vielhaber, Chairman of the Studienkreis. This could hardly be expected given the still difficult political situation in the Near East. "Regardless of this, we are pleased", said Vielhaber, "that the award went to one project each in Argentina and Palestine which have put their emphasis on encounter programmes, in addition to fulfilling the contest criteria".
The regional development project of the Argentinean award-winner CAMINOS DE ALTAMIRA pursues a clearly participatory approach, showing solidarity with the stakeholders. During the dramatic depression in Argentina which climaxed in the years 2000 and 2001, people were forced to come up with new ideas and to break new ground. Due to the economic crisis and the related country-wide freezing of bank accounts, the families which had so far earned their livelihood from agriculture and viticulture in the fertile Valle de Uco (at the foot of the Andes) were no longer able to sell their products on the market.
In the country's interior hardly anyone had the necessary cash to buy and pay for the farmers' products, and all of a sudden export was too expensive. At the time, one Argentinean Peso was equivalent to one US-Dollar which meant that at the international level Argentina was no longer competitive (today the exchange rate stands at 3:1). In view of this extreme need there was only one possible conclusion. In future, income was to be achieved through diversification, with the aim of preserving the beautiful landscape so that the people are able to make their living without giving up their traditional, rural lifestyle. Therefore, one of the envisaged measures was to develop "agrotourism" which was a completely new approach for the region at the time. Agrotourism is able to trigger off two impacts simultaneously. Firstly, the people are able to earn cash (through offering board and lodging to guests) and, secondly, through direct marketing of their products the farmers are able to get the optimal price for their products (valorisation). With the support of the state-owned agricultural research institute INTA, the founder members of the CAMINOS DE ALTAMIRA network were also able to get the know-how that is necessary for tourism activities (customer support, programme design, regional, environmental and cultural knowledge). Meanwhile, CAMINOS DE ALTAMIRA is a registered association comprising altogether 16 members, or service providers, respectively (private hosts, agricultural enterprises, artisan families and, as a commercially neutral support organisation, the research institute INTA as mentioned above). Together they have elaborated a one- to two-day programme for the visitors to the region, through which interested holiday makers are able to get to know the life and daily routine of the local population. Motto: "Country life in Argentina". The activities include rides with the sulky, hikes, bicycle tours, or wine-tasting and barbecue and music parties in the evenings. The income earned through these activities is distributed to the respective service providers according to a fixed ratio. CAMINOS DE ALTAMIRA particularly appreciates the fact that since 2004 it has been cooperating with the German Aventoura GmbH, a travel agency specialised in Latin American tours, and that due to an increasing number of foreign guests the additional income through tourism is on the increase and has become more stable.
The Palestinian award-winner ALTERNATIVE TOURISM GROUP is active against quite a different backdrop but with the same objectives. The non-governmental organisation with its headquarters in Beit Sahour (near Bethlehem) puts great emphasis on direct encounters with the local population, despite the tense political situation in the Near East. On the one hand, it wants to facilitate experiences of and exposure to the Palestinian culture (also in the sense of a new image creation focusing on the Palestinian people), on the other hand the ALTERNATIVE TOURISM GROUP (ATG) also wants the people to earn an additional income through an overnight tourism on Palestinian territory. Seen from this angle, the ATG also functions like an incoming agency with cultural-political roots and is yet tourism oriented.
Outsiders may find it strange to even consider tourism activities in (Israeli occupied) West Jordan, but experts know that no Israeli or Palestinian would knowingly jeopardise the safety of a guest. Both parties are constantly aware of the fact that they live in a conflict-ridden region. With this in mind, they treat visitors who they have to take care of in a cautious and responsible manner. But in its security advice, the German Foreign Office, as a matter of principle, advises tourists against travelling to the Palestinian territories.
The history of ATG's foundation is shaped by a group of intellectuals in Beit Sahour who in 1995 pondered the question of why tourists visit exclusively the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem only to depart again without seeking any contacts with the Palestinians. In the knowledge that it would not be able to achieve any quick changes in the political image and negative stereotypes about Palestinians, the founding group took on the self-appointed mission to strive for a change in image at the human level and attempt to bring people together as a grassroots organisation. With a view to achieving several objectives with the aid of a more equitable tourism. For example: To also benefit from tourism in the "Holy Land" which is mainly influenced and controlled by Israel and to ensure that the income that can be generated is passed on directly to the population. This also includes offering and utilizing the existing Palestinian infrastructure (hotels, restaurants, transport, multi-lingual guides etc).
Since 2000, the ALTERNATIVE TOURISM GROUP pursues this aim and meanwhile conducts its own independent activities. Overall, in the course of time, eleven church-related, development and socio-politically active organisations and advocacy initiatives from the domestic and international fronts have become involved as contact and cooperation partners, taking care of travel groups from France, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany among others. In 1999 and 2000, ATG succeeded in taking care of around 2100 guests per year. Following the 2nd Intifada and "September 11" the number of visitors dropped drastically below the 500 per year mark with a subsequent return to growth to the present level of nearly 1200 tourists per year.
Apart from the fact that the ALTERNATIVE TOURISM GROUP takes a political and socio-political stance, it is not a dogmatic propaganda organisation. The intention is to provide the valued visitors with positive and astounding experiences with Palestinians in Palestine (music, food, conversation, and well-being). One of the greatest assets ATG can boast of are the nearly 100 private accommodations with families living in the city conglomerate of Beit Sahour, Bethlehem and Beit Jala who rent rooms on a "Bed & Breakfast" basis (mainly up to European standard with their own sanitary facilities). This means that ATG refers hotel accommodations as well as accommodations with families and can respond to individual wishes (age, families with children, if possible professional or religious interests, etc.) Direct encounters are therefore the decisive factor as well as a different picture of the Palestinians.
The approach pursued by the projects from Argentina and Palestine which were awarded the TO DO! was "perfectly in line with the objectives of the Swiss Foundation for Solidarity in Tourism (SST)", said its President, Hansjörg Ruf, at the award ceremony. The intention to support and promote such political and regional-political developments has "again prompted (the Foundation) to give a prize money of CHF 5000 to each of the award-winners", said Ruf. The "Swiss Foundation for Solidarity in Tourism" supported "organisations, projects and initiatives that promote sustainable tourism development", because they could help "to secure the livelihood of the population in tourism destination areas, improve their economic situation and protect the environment", said the President of the Foundation. Hansjörg Ruf also reported about the Board of Trustees' decision to join the circle of the TO DO! supporters as of the new contest round in 2007 - beyond the prize moneys already pledged.
Since 2004, the "Europäische Reiseversicherung AG" (European Travel Insurance Corp.) also supports the TO DO! prize-winners, offering prize money of altogether 2100 Euro. During the award ceremony, the chairman of Distribution and Marketing of the "European", Mr. Helmut Held, said: "Time after time, the award-winners show how the local people take the initiative in their projects, how they implement ideas and succeed in life." Moreover, the award-winning projects were always in line with the principles of environmental compatibility, said Held. Sustainability was the corporate philosophy of the European, because, he reflected, it would be futile as an insurance company to assist people in the case of illness or accident during their travel abroad, if travelling as such became less attractive through the damage of nature and environment. "We rejoice with the award-winners 2006 and wish them all the best for the future", said Held.
It is much appreciated that some more supporters could be won for the TO DO! contest, said the Managing Director of the Studienkreis, Dr. Dietlind von Laßberg. Since the contest round in 2006, Studiosus Reisen München GmbH and the Austrian operator VASCO - Die gute Reise, were also among the enterprises that give financial support to the TO DO! contest. Dr. von Laßberg emphasised that other tour operators were invited to follow the example of Studiosus and VASCO.
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text: Klaus Betz