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Negev Tourism: Think Different
[Session summery]

Host: Shiran Adi, Director of Tourism and Culture, the Negev Development Authority

The tourist industry provides numerous opportunities for economic development. That being said, it also poses many challenges for local and independent tour operators. To develop local tourism that positively impacts the local economy we must identify and leverage local resources. Furthermore, initiatives must rely on cooperation between tour operators and a variety of local businesses. 

Tour operators from the Negev and additional regions who promote diverse models of local tourism, participated in the panel.

Panel Participants:

  • Independent tourism as an opportunity to develop the local economy – Maoz Yinnon, a tourism entrepreneur and founding partner of the Abraham Hostel, the Fauzi Azar Inn the Jesus Trail and the Association for the Promotion of Independent Tourism in the Negev, winner of the Responsible Tourism Prize
  • Jisr Az-Zarka, local tourism models based on cooperation – Eran Ben Yemini, Project Manager at the Institute for Democratic Education, and community representatives.
  • The Green Backpackers, a backpackers' hostel in Mitzpe Ramon – Lee Balut, hostel owner 
  • Darom Adom, collaboration between Negev based entrepreneurs – Amit Levkov, Director of the Tourism Association.

The Negev Development Authority works continuously to develop the concept of a "Negev Tourism Product". We focus on creating a representative image of the region. Twice a year we launch a campaign promoting local tourism.

Amit Levkov, Darom Adom Festival

We decided to launch the Festival to highlight the unique wonder experienced when the anemone bloom in the Gaza Envelope and northern Negev; and to alleviate security concerns during the period when Qassam Rockets were falling in the region. It was local residents who decided to move forward with the initiative which was a source of local pride. This was the first time that the region received positive PR.

In 2008, we started producing the festival professionally, and it is now considered a prominent example of rustic tourism. One of the reasons for its success was partner organizations such as the Negev Development Authority.

It helps pre-existing local businesses get off the ground and grow. After coming to see the anemones where can people go?

The local businessman's job is to draw visitors to the anemone fields, which are kind of like a mall, to his own business. He is responsible for marketing, agreements, sales etc.

Each year the festival attracts upwards of 3,000 visitors over the course of a month and helps local businesses grow by offering events, activities and content. Each business owner is a one man information center for the entire festival and must possess knowledge and information regarding the festival as a whole. Consequently, we must maintain contact with all tour operators in the region and connect them to additional networks: locally (the northern Negev), regionally (the Negev in its entirety), the Ministry of Tourism etc.

Some business owners do not know how to connect with other businesses or are too small to do so. To help them we created a "picnic basket" offering products made by small businesses and sold by the non profit organization on the web or during the festival itself.

Maoz Yinnon, the Jesus Trail, Abraham Hostel

A model of responsible tourism in Nazareth. Tourism as an engine for growth. 9% of employees worldwide. 8% of the GNP worldwide. In Israel it only makes up 3% of employees and 2% of the GNP. Nonetheless, there is tremendous potential . We can create more than half a million new jobs in the tourism industry. 

Responsible Tourism – Tourism that creates an environment that is better for people to live in and to visit. Tourism that can promote the social and economic development of our surroundings. Two principles: rely on existing and sustainable infrastructure 

The Fauzi Azar Inn: A private business employing 10 people. A short walk visiting small businesses surrounding the Inn. Those little places that would otherwise go unvisited. 

We print a map that enables networking between local businesses and increases tourists' sense of security. 

The Foreign Volunteer Project - Sets in motion a loop which, in turn, generates additional tourism ( friends and family). 

Public Relations – Moshe Gilad who founded Lonely Planet. 

Reliance on Existing Infrastructure – In light of public demand we gradually introduced new infrastructure including showers, toilets and air conditioners. 

We try to proceed carefully. Encourages interaction with local residents. 

Mentoring local businesses - Since the establishment of the Fauzi Azar Inn seven new guesthouses have opened in Nazareth and surrounding communities. 

Social Events – A Palestinian sewing workshop, food and culture festival. A firm business mode. Numerous collaborations with local residents.

Eran Ben Yemini, the Institute for Democratic Education

Came to Jisr Az Zarka as part of an educational program. Jisr is one of the lowest ranking communities in Israel in terms of income and educational indexes. The educational work led us to an understanding that we must also focus on social and economic conditions. One of the most beautiful beaches in Israel. Located in a good place in the center of the country. Lots of potential. Attempts to develop the town hand in hand with educational development. The school system is a generator of economic activity that has gone unexploited, only in terms of teacher salaries, maintenance, food production etc. The first project is "A Bridge to Arabic" – Teaching Arabic to Jews. 

The reason we chose to teach Arabic was to reverse the power structure – Jews as teachers and Arabs as students, unlike food plants etc. There is an emphasis on the experiential: incorporating meals during Ramadan and a guided tour of the region. All activities are conducted in simple Arabic which the students can understand as well as classroom curriculum. 

It is an intensive and action filled month. The women whom we recruited are experienced teachers, but were very apprehensive of teaching Jews because they suffer from an inferiority complex and because the community is generally alienated from surrounding towns, both Arab and Jewish. 

The first group included university professors so there was a lot of anxiety, but this actually resulted in the experience being more empowering. 

The home accommodation resulted in the development of real relationships. A law professor took upon herself to encourage the girls in her host family to pursue a college education. Generating economic activities and tourism empowers the community itself as well as surrounding Arab communities. 

The second project is being implemented with the local junior high school - The Israel National Trail passes through Jisr but the backpackers ignore the village. The Trail is an enormous generator of economic activity, amounting to about half a million Shekels a year. The students are currently marking local trails within the village which will lead to local businesses and attract visitors. We are also preparing a map of all local trails. 

An additional project aims at opening a guest house in the village. It is being promoted by a girl named Neta along with a local guy and they are also building collaborations with local schools.

Lee Balut, the Green Backpackers Hostel in Mitzpe Ramon

A hostel for independent backpackers. Emphasizes communal areas – a kitchen, dining room, showers, dormitory etc. Cheap accommodation who want to spend money on other things. Independent tourists: 20 – 40 year olds, large travel budgets, use mainly public transportation, travel independently, are not limited to a certain place or time, generally long periods of travel – are willing to stay and volunteer, looking for an authentic experience with out intermediates, rely on the internet and word of mouth for information. 

In general foreign tourists don't reach the Negev so place a lot of emphasis on promoting the destination, not the hostel. 

Holistic – Each visitor is provided a map of Mitzpe Ramon which includes local businesses. We work with local tour operators, we take no commission for activities e.g. bicycles which can be used to explore the town. 

Bus Map Project - To map all tourist attractions on the Mitzpe Ramon – Beer Sheva bus route, including nature trails that are not in Makhtesh Ramon. Building a tour narrative for travels that lengthens their stay in the region. Making the region accessible.

The advantages of independent tourists

All season travelers, immune to natural disasters or security concerns, consume the same services as the local population, trend setters for the general tourist population, easily overcome language barriers. 

Primary challenges:
  • Darom Adom – There is no long term government plan that provides support, fundraising must be reinitiated every year, no guarantee of continued government funding.  
  • Each government authority works exclusively, the authorities often make illogical demands, which are different in every region. There is no one authoritative body that we can work with. 
  • Entrepreneurs – The security situation and uncertainty. Missiles that fall in the Negev are also harmful to tour operators in Nazareth and there is no compensation. We should establish an insurance fund that will cover damages caused to the tourism sector because of security issues, similar to the one that exists in the agricultural sector.  
  • Tourism– local transportation is non existent in the Negev. Foreign tourists generally do not visit the Negev. The Negev Development Authority cannot focus on the Negev alone because the tourists come from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. 
  • Inadequate internal tourism throughout the year.

The Negev Development Authority wants to hold a tour operators convention in the Negev that will examine mechanisms of promoting tourism in the region. What is the best way to promote businesses here. The door is open to all of you. 

The Session was held as part of the Main Event of the Negev Local Sustainable Economic Development ENPI-CBCMED Congress – December 2013.

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