Aziz Abu Sarah wants to break down cultural and historical barriers between people through tourism.
In 2009, he co-founded Mejdi Tours, a joint Jewish-Arab tour company based out of Arlington, Va. along with a conflict-resolution professor and a former financial adviser. Their goal was to create a new kind of tour company that uses tourism as an opportunity to encourage tolerance and cross cultural understanding by introducing tourists to the local people, sharing their traditions and teaching the multiple narratives and viewpoints that make up any nation. Currently offering custom tours through Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Spain and Ireland, the company hopes that their unique approach to tour guiding will encourage peace and understanding among people from different backgrounds.
In his speech at a TED2014 conference in Vancouver, Aziz explained his concept and the industry changes that he hopes to achieve:
“Imagine with me if the one billion people who travel internationally every year travel like this – not being taken in the bus from one site to another, from one hotel to another, taking pictures from the windows of their buses of people and cultures, but actually connecting with people,” he said.
In his own experience, these one on one connections between people of different cultures are the best way to destroy hatred and foster tolerance.
When he was a young man, Aziz’s older brother died at the age of 18 from injuries sustained while in Israeli police custody. His grief turned into hatred and a desire for vengeance that was only diminished when he was forced to meet the people that he thought he hated. At the age of 18, he realized that he would need to learn Hebrew in order to get a job so he signed for a class and, for the first time, met Israelis who were not soldiers.
“We connected over really small things like the fact that I love country music,” he said. “It was then that I realized that we have a wall of anger, of hatred and of ignorance that separates us. I decided to dedicate my life to bringing down the walls that separate people.”
Mejdi Tours began as a tool for helping Israelis and Palestinians meet and understand each other. Through the multiple narratives approach, tour groups are guided through the region by an Israeli and a Palestinian guide. They meet with people from both cultures and are given both cultural, religious, political and ethnic perspectives on the region.
He has taken groups to Palestinian refugee camps where they meet with the residents, share a common meal and listen to music performed by both Israeli and Palestinian musicians.
“This is not disaster tourism,” Aziz cautions. “This is not a profile photo for your Facebook. This is the future of travel and I invite you to join me to do that, to change your travel. We’re doing it all over the world now, from Ireland to Iran to Turkey and we see ourselves going everywhere to change the world.”