Can backpackers solve Middle East's tourism woes?

An Israeli tourism entrepreneur believes tourism does far more than bring in cash, and has built a top-rated hostel to bring tourists in, particularly the young backpacker crowd.

Christa Case Bryant/TCSM
Maoz Inon recently spoke about his vision for sustainable tourism at the first international Jerusalem symposium on green and accessible pilgrimage.

Where others give PowerPoint presentations about wooing more souls to a storied land, he wears a faded “staff” T-shirt with a button that says, “In fun we trust.” He actively courts travelers who have visited countries at war with Israel, including Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq, and aims to boost tourism to the whole Middle East one backpacker at a time.

Meet Maoz Inon, Israel’s maverick tourism entrepreneur, whose latest venture was just recognized as one of the top 10 large hostels worldwide.

“I believe tourism is a great tool also to create political change, to create a very big impact,” he says. “Backpackers are the first adopters, so we must target them.”

Mr. Inon’s foray into shoestring travel in Israel began eight years ago in the Old City of Nazareth, one of Israel’s poorest neighborhoods, which was riddled with drugs and not exactly a prime tourist destination – even for the adventurous. But after he and his wife decided to leave their “yuppie lives” in Tel Aviv and spent months backpacking along California’s Pacific Crest Trail and later Patagonia at the tip of South America, they had returned home with a mission.

“I believe the No. 1 beneficiary should be the local community,” he says, having witnessed firsthand the transformative effect of responsible tourism.

He found a gem of an old mansion in Nazareth’s warren of stone alleyways, and turned its soaring arches and tiled ceilings into the Fauzi Azar Inn, named after the Arab family that occupied it until the 1980s. By creating a free map and daily tours of the Old City, as well as co-founding the Jesus Trail that runs from Fauzi’s steps to the shores of the Galilee, he helped create such a demand that six more guesthouses have since opened up in the Old City.

With visitors from places as cosmopolitan as London and far-flung as Mongolia, he says his inn and its clientele are gradually turning perceptions of Nazareth inside out.

“It is raising the self-esteem of the community and creating a psychological change in their mind,” says Inon, who partners with local businesses – including other guesthouses – and organizes home-cooked dinners in a local family’s home for 80 shekels ($22) a head.

“Sustainable business is not about recycling or solar power,” he says. “It’s about being a profitable business.

And he seems to have a knack for spotting such opportunities. The Abraham Hostel, which he opened in 2010 with several other Israeli backpackers, became a top-ranked Israeli hostel before renovations on all 72 rooms were even completed. In February, the annual Hoscars competition named it the 8th best large hostel in the world – the only Israeli hostel to get a mention in any of the four categories.

“I believe backpackers are the foundation of sustainable tourism,” he says. “I see them as the planktons in the ocean that we feed on.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.