Tourism and the pilgrim: can one become the other?

Tourism and the pilgrim: can one become the other?

Responsible and just forms of tourism offer communities opportunities to share their cultures, tell their stories, request solidarity and foster tolerance and greater understanding, says Kim Cain.

The contrast could not be more different: passing through the main checkpoint in the massive concrete wall that divides Jerusalem ( Israel) from Bethlehem ( Palestine) there are murals on both sides that show just how life is understood in the “unholy mess” in the “ Holy Land”.

On the Israel side of the wall, where every car, bus and truck is stopped and every person questioned by an armed Israeli soldier, there is a professionally-painted image on the wall: it is of blue sky, ancient buildings and olive trees.

The slogan says, “Jerusalem-Bethlechem – Love and Peace”.

The sign also says it’s from the “Ministry of Tourism”.

Once through the checkpoint, on the West Bank side, the roads are rougher and narrower.

On this side of the wall the image just inside the crossing gate is graffiti of a lion devouring a dove. The slogan is not official; it’s not from the government. It is the people’s voice saying, “Hypocrisy.”

It’s a perfect symbol of what is occurring in the hub of one of the most visited places on earth.

To visit Jerusalem — as people of faith have done for centuries — is to enter a political as well as a spiritual environment. Here, the pilgrim is at the centre of a public relations campaign for hearts and minds.

Whether they want it or not, tourists (including pilgrims) are fair game for propaganda. On one side, the Israeli government is determined to minimise any perception of the oppression of a people.

From the other side, Palestinians want the pilgrims to see what they say is happening: ordinary people losing their houses, their lands and their hope.

“We feel,” said one Palestinian family man, a man who hates the violence of both sides, “like we are in an open-air prison.”

God’s own country?

Now switch continents — to South Asia. The southern Indian state of Kerala has been cited by National Geographic as one of the world’s top-ten must see places.

Under the slogan of “God’s Own Country”, the Indian authorities have heavily invested in promoting the area as an international destination.

People the world over are attracted to tropical jungles running down to the sea, high mountains of tea plantations and teeming waterfalls, and vast “backwaters”, where there are endless days of touring on bamboo-covered house boats.

Tourism provides employment and greater social contact — but at a price. For instance, the once lusciously fresh backwaters are increasingly polluted.

An old farmer says, “Each day I see diesel oil, human excrement and food scraps from the boats float past my house. I cannot use my own water anymore.”

While many of the tourists on the backwater barges will have been drawn to India for its religious ambience, festivals and spiritual culture, the farmer says his rice crop falters due to poor water quality, local people are exploited through low wages and long work hours, and there is an increase in water born diseases, which especially affect the young and vulnerable.

No room for encounter

The two case studies — South India and Israel/Palestine — show in sharp relief everyday realities in the tourist and pilgrimage industries.

Pilgrims become tourists; the two are linked. They visit “holy sites” and recall spiritual events. They dwell on miracles and messiahs — but often only as part of a package tour.

In Bethlehem some will pray at a spot where Jesus was supposed to have been born. In India some will meditate in an ashram.

Despite being an ocean apart, both groups will be tempted to leave at home their concern for those who host them or ignore the circumstances of those who serve them during their journey.

Accommodation, food and travel are all arranged. But there is no room for encounter with the people who live in those places. Their experience goes un-noticed or is denied.

One Jerusalem-accredited tourist guide said, “Many priests [that accompany pilgrim groups] insist for me not to mention politics. But how can you do that when the tour bus passes military roadblocks, settlements and a massive wall?”

The tragedy is that many pilgrims will “walk in the footsteps of Jesus” but not set foot in a Palestinian street other than to scuttle past hopeful street traders on the 200-metre walk from the special tourist bus stop to the Church of the Nativity.

Seldom do they hear the experiences of Jewish folk, who have their own concerns about security and finding a just solution, an end to violence and peace for all peoples of the Middle East.

Justice and sustainability

The Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism (ECOT), a coalition of regional ecumenical organisations, calls for and works towards tourism that is fair and just and that genuinely benefits host communities. ECOT wants churches and justice groups to face these issues because they are “profound” for the international community.

Affirming the potential gains of tourism — increased economic opportunity for the poor, for example — ECOT also sees too often the shadow side of a world presented in glossy brochures and tourist talk: the denial of justice for the poor, the exploitation of the young and entrenched powers abusing ordinary people.

Says ECOT director, Caesar D’Mello, “We believe tourism must be based on justice and sustainability for host communities.”

Spiritual tourism is a burgeoning business in India, with ashrams overflowing with people seeking alternative points of living. But, once the days of meditation are over, it’s off down the tourist track, often unwittingly taking advantage of local communities, which are exploited by greedy tour operators.

Furthermore, in their haste to exploit the tourist market in many places, resort owners have pushed traditional fishing communities off local beaches — literally stealing the people’s use of the sand — so they can sanitise their resorts for Western visitors.

Consequences also include increase in HIVAIDS, child prostitution and loss of habitat for local wildlife.

Entrenched misunderstanding

In the Middle East the tourist-pilgrims face different issues relating to how they as visitors encounter the people and places they see.

For instance, at the checkpoint on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, Israeli-number-plated buses go from Jerusalem to Bethlehem without stopping. For a spiritual tourist, it seems all so normal. There is no inconvenience.

The pilgrim will be oblivious to the pain this barrier represents. Palestinians usually have to wait hours, every morning of every day, to get to work. Their humiliation is intense.

The wall is a “security fence”: an Israeli solution to suicide bombings.

But its success comes at a price. According to Palestinians, this “apartheid wall” has led to even more suspicion between the two sides and entrenched misunderstanding.

Now some tourists groups are so scared that they insist on an armed guard on each bus that goes to the stable of Jesus’ birth.

Pilgrims, it seems can — in glass and steel bubble coaches — become Holy Land tourists, unaware of the pain on both sides, numb to the suffering, anaesthetised to injustice and ignorant of the longing for peace where Jesus once lived.

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