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FEATURE ARTICLE 1
VolunTourism In The Middle East: Launching The Abraham Path
When we think of voluntourism, we usually think of tour operators or nonprofit organizations addressing the socio-environmental challenges of a destination - a rural village, an urban community, a coral reef. Quite often this is done in cooperation with a local grassroots organization or community effort. But, Dr. Joshua N. Weiss, some of his colleagues from Harvard University, and a growing network of global supporters have a far more robust idea in mind - to restore the roughly 5,000 km (3,000 miles) of what once served as the route of passage for Abraham and his fellow tribespeople. Are you ready to be part of a voluntourism initiative that will ultimately traverse 10 countries in the Middle East?!?
Editor's Note: I first interviewed Dr. Joshua Weiss back in May 2008. Here is part of a quote from that interview:
So here we are, nearly a year later. Joseph Campbell's words are, perhaps, even more important today than ever before. Dr. Weiss and his team have made great strides in getting their initiative to a point where they are truly ready to invite the voluntourism world to join them, to help carry this initiative along its own path of realization.
The Abraham Path Initiative and the Abraham Path
"Traveler there is no path, the path is made by walking." Antonio Machado
The Abraham Path Initiative is a non profit entity founded at Harvard University with offices around the world. The mission of the Abraham Path Initiative is to inspire and support the opening of the Abraham Path, a cultural itinerary through 10 countries in the Middle East, including Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and, for Muslims, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. As one of the most outstanding cultural itineraries in the world, the Abraham Path connects some of the most revered world heritage sites and ancient holy places, and will eventually join over 5,000 kilometers of scenic walking trails.
The Abraham Path invites travelers from around the world to rediscover and participate in the region's traditions of sacred hospitality and respect — generating relationships and resources that are a basis for a more prosperous, just, and peaceful world.
The Abraham Path connects humanity through:
- A common story: The Abraham Path reawakens Abraham's inspirational journey throughout the world, inspiring both new and existing travelers to re-trace Abraham's footsteps — crossing borders, making friends, and discovering the shared values of justice, faith, respect, friendship and hospitality.
- A common meeting place: A cultural itinerary connecting revered historic and cultural sites such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Damascus, Aleppo, Jericho, Sanliurfa, Harran and for Muslims, Mecca.
- A common experience: Beautiful rural landscapes and villages inspire tourists to "get off the bus" and directly meet the people of the region in an experience of walking side by side and step by step toward a shared future.
Why This Initiative And Path?
Humanity faces no greater challenge than the increasing divide between the West and the Muslim world. Fear, mistrust and violence are significant barriers to shared understanding and respect. The solution to deep mistrust of the "other," based on lack of knowledge and a common experience, is direct human connection.
The Abraham Path Initiative envisions a thriving and prosperous Middle East, where responsible tourism is the driving engine for human connection, inspiring and sustaining widespread mutual respect and understanding between the West and the Islamic world.
Abraham's journey into the unknown, and encounters with others inspired a lasting tradition of sacred hospitality and friendship, which continues to this day. The Abraham Path Initiative imagines a world reconnected through the values of Abraham, where people walk side by side, and step by step toward a shared future, experiencing together justice, faith, respect and hope. Abraham's journey reveals the essence of human connection and reminds us that we are all one human family.
What Has Been The History And Progress Of The Initiative?
The Abraham Path Initiative was begun in 2004 under the leadership of Dr. William Ury. Dr. Ury is also a co-founder of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School and the co-author of the worldwide bestseller on negotiation, Getting to Yes. Before taking any action on the ground, those working on the Abraham Path Initiative spent two years studying the idea and consulting widely in the Middle East and in the West.
There remained a sense of skepticism that people could actually travel the length of this route from Turkey down through Syria, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Community. So, in November of 2006, twenty five scholars and leaders from ten countries traveled the entire segment of the route by bus, meeting along the way with government leaders, including deputy prime ministers and ministers of tourism, religious leaders from all three faiths, and business and non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders. These consultative meetings continued the effort to build partnerships and develop the route. 2006 also brought to life one of the most significant and exciting aspects of the Abraham Path Initiative — “Local Abraham Walks". These events are being designed and undertaken by grassroots teams in local communities throughout the world.
2007 saw the beginning of actions and developments on the ground and marked a shift from the study phase to the implementation phase. During this year, the Abraham Path Initiative solidified governmental permissions and support from countries along the path, segments of the Abraham Path were opened for pilot travel, a launch event took place in Turkey related to the tourism potential of the project, national and local teams in each country began to come into being, and significant media attention was garnered.
In 2008 we further developed the segments so they were ready for travel, began to bring the first travelers, and held a number of student exchanges and international youth walks along the path. All of these efforts were conducted as pilots in order to learn what would work best and to continually improve the experience of the people traveling down the path.
Finally, in 2009 our focus is shifting so by the middle to the end of the year we can declare the path ready for a steady flow of travelers. As such, this year will be about further segment development, building partnerships with organizations that are ‘best of class’ in different areas of the path, and continuing to take our lead from the hosts of the path – those people living along it in the villages, towns, and cities as well as our country team representatives.
Who Is Creating The Abraham Path And How Will It Develop In The Future?
The Abraham Path Initiative is a non-for-profit entity based in the US. The mission of the Abraham Path Initiative is to inspire and support the opening of the Abraham Path. As such, the role of the Abraham Path Initiative – at the international level will diminish over time. As the role of the international organization becomes minimized, which is slowly transpiring now, the country teams will play an increasingly important role in the development of the path. But these country teams will also slowly fall by the wayside as supply and demand take over – leaving the private sector and others as the primary generators of the path and its development.
Interestingly, during the study phase of the project we were able to decipher that a similar route – the Camino de Santiago – evolved in this supply and demand manner. There was no overarching entity that guided its development – as the Machado quote above explained, this is a practical example of the path being made by people walking it! Those living along the path saw opportunities emerge naturally as travelers emerged.
And so, at the end of the day so to speak, the Abraham Path must be owned and lead by the communities and countries along it. They know what will work best for themselves and what will fit with the cultural norms they are steeped in.
What Are The Next Steps For The Abraham Path?
As a small non profit organization, the Abraham Path Initiative recognizes the need to build partnerships for the many realms where it is not ‘best of class’. And there are many areas where this is the case. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of tourism…and voluntourism in particular. The opportunities for voluntourism are numerous, from clearing the path to helping to build way stations to working on a restoration project. And the path is ready for such efforts.
2009 is the year where the Abraham Path can confidently declare that it is ready to receive travelers. And in order to do that, we need to create partnerships with organizations that have strong backgrounds in travel & tourism and voluntary service. If you are interested in discussing partnerships with the Abraham Path Initiative please contact Josh Weiss at josh[at]abrahampath.org
About Joshua N. Weiss, PhD.
Dr. Joshua N. Weiss is a negotiation expert and currently the Associate Director of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard University and the Managing Director of the Abraham Path Initiative. He received his Ph.D. from the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR) at George Mason University in 2002. Dr. Weiss has spoken and published on Negotiation, Mediation, and systemic approaches to dealing with conflict. In his current capacity he conducts research, consults with many different types of organizations, delivers negotiation and mediation trainings and courses, and engages in negotiation and mediation at the organizational, interstate, and international levels.
Dr. Weiss also publishes a weekly podcast on negotiation called the Negotiation Tip of the Week (see www.negotiationtip.com). The podcast was ranked as high as # 3 in Itunes business top 25 podcasts and was in the top 25 for over a year with over 100,000 downloads per month.
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