Responsible tourism issues

It is difficult to separate politics from tourism when talking about Israel, because borders and occupied territories are at the heart of the conflict here, and travel involves borders. What we do believe at Responsible Travel, however, is that when done right, travel can be a force for good, promulgate peace, improve awareness of human rights and support the livelihoods of people that may have suffered through conflict. We believe that it is only by traveling there, talking with people from all sides of the divide and gaining perspective in situ, that we can get to grips with the decades of destruction and power struggle that have been happening in Israel and their occupied territories.

People & culture

Respecting cultures

As Israel is a spiritual and religious land not only for Jews and Christians but also for Muslims, being sensitive to cultural traditions is very important when it comes to traveling responsibly here. Although Israel is, in general, very liberal in its attitudes to fashion, sexuality, popular culture etc. religious traditions still hold great sway. Therefore, it is important to dress appropriately in places of worship as well as in conservative areas, such as Mea She'arim in Jerusalem, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city, and home to Orthodox Haredi Jews. These dress codes apply to men and women, and the rule of thumb being to keep as covered as possible. And at holy sites women, be they Muslim, Jewish or Christian, must cover their heads, so travel with a light scarf, that isnít too hot, to cover your head and shoulders when visiting temples, mosques and other religious places. At Jewish sites, men may also need to cover their heads with a yarmulke cap.

Be aware that there are two national languages in Israel: Hebrew and Arabic. It is striking, however, how many tourist websites donít offer an Arabic language option. Hebrew, English, French and Russian seem to be the most common, but Arabic rarely features.

It is important to understand the tradition of Shabbat, or Jewish Sabbath in Israel. This starts on Friday evening at sunset and lasts until early Saturday evening. A very holy day, it is observed by many people, businesses etc. Traditionally it means that work, using vehicles and cooking are forbidden, as is the act of switching electricity on and off. So, in short, public transport shuts down, shops and restaurants close, hotels have limited lift service, tourist attractions close and the whole place goes blissfully quiet for a day. Which is actually a wonderful thing to witness in this modern age. So donít moan about it; just bemoan the fact that many other countries in the world donít take time out for quiet contemplation every week. Or, of course, there is always the wonderful option of heading into Arabic quarters of, say, Jerusalem, where life goes on as normal.
What you can do
Make sure you pack modest clothes and a headscarf for women, before you come. Read up on cultural issues and etiquette not just within Jewish communities but also Arabic ones, before you visit. Also, learn some smatterings of both Hebrew and Arabic before you go, respecting the fact that there are two national languages in Israel, even if not always obvious in the world of mass tourism.

Wildlife & the environment

Lack of water

Water shortages have become a chronic problem in Israel over the last few years, and the country has suffered several near drought periods. This is due both to climate change and a shortage of ground and surface water, despite a rainy season, as well as over development and growing population. Even the Dead Sea is receding by one metre per year, and some think may disappear altogether in the next few decades. Israelis are used to the notion of conserving water in homes and in businesses, but there is still a bit of a hush around the subject in tourism, as agriculture has always been seen as the industry most dependent on it. Although hotels do have to pay a water tariff, these tariffs are decreasing due to the fact that more desalinated water technology is being used, even though this is costly on energy resources too.

Water is also a political issue in Israel, with Palestinian farming communities and tourism businesses needing access to water in order to survive and, in many cases, being obliged to buy it at high cost to already impoverished rural communities. The mountain aquifer that resides in the occupied territories around Golan Heights, for example, is a hugely important water resource. So for once, in these heated issues, water is an issue that increases the fire, rather than extinguishing it.*

What you can do
Donít stay in vast accommodations that feed into the inequality of water access in the country. Staying on a kibbutz or in a homestay, for example, means that you are supporting community run enterprises that are already switched on to the sustainable consumption of water. And adhere to basic common sense, using quick showers instead of baths, turning off taps when brushing teeth, using short toilet flushes and so on.

*Read more about ongoing work by "Good Water Neighbors" (GWN) project, established by EcoPeace / Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME)

Responsible tourism tips

Be sensitive in your discussions around politics and religion and read up before you go. It is worth remembering that for many people going to Israel to visit religious sites, the conflicted borders are almost invisible. It is, for them, the Holy Land. Not Israel, not Palestine. And in fact, many vacations are sold as trips to the Holy Land for this reason. Donít ignore security warnings. Never leave your bag unattended, and do what the security authorities advise. Itís not scare mongering. Israelis are resilient people, they love cafť life and good living, and this sense of joie de vivre means that it is easy to overlook the fact that it is still a country living in dangerous times. So be wary, and always follow local advice. It is very common to have your bags searched by security at shops, restaurants etc. And also sometimes cars are stopped and have their boots searched. Always best to carry your passport as ID.
It goes without saying, but sadly, we do still need to say it, have the utmost respect when talking about the Holocaust or visiting memorial sites. After WW2, many survivors came to their new homeland of Israel, created in 1948. Take great care when talking about the Holocaust, and never, never, make jokes about it. Be very wary when it comes to buying antiquities in Israel, as you can easily be sold a fake. Or, for example, you might think you are buying Roman glass, but it may have been mixed with modern glass and then reblown. Also, if you are caught at the airport taking out illegal antiquities, the fines are severe. Scuba diving is hugely popular on the Red Sea. Make sure you adhere to responsible diving practices, respecting the fragility of coral and only use a diving company with responsible tourism credentials. Dead Sea products are very popular as gifts, such as salts and dried mud. There is a worldwide movement to boycott certain Israeli products because of the dispute over Occupied Territories. We do, however, recommend supporting the local economy when you are in Israel, as local farmers, Israeli and Palestinian need to survive. Dead Sea products are particularly controversial, however, because there are just a few large Israeli companies profiting from them, and the Sea does lie in Occupied Territories. And, as such, the Sea is being exploited without permission or taxes paid to Palestinian authorities. Donít go hiking off the beaten track without expert guides. In certain areas, around the Golan Heights, for example, land mines are a big issue, although these areas are well signposted. The heat can be extreme, so always carry water, lots of it, keep covered and donít go hiking in the height of summer, unless itís early morning or late afternoon. Be careful in the Dead Sea. Although famous for floating, every year people do drown. The rule is to only float on your back. Weak swimmers sometimes attempt to swim breast stroke, on their fronts, and their legs are raised higher than normal, so their heads become submerged. Which causes them to swallow water, panic and struggle. Donít add to the traffic congestion in many cities in Israel. The public transport system, in particular buses, is one of the best in the world. In fact, the bus company Egged is the second biggest bus company in the world.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Edgardo W. Olivera] [Lack of water: Eddie Stigson] [Andrew Appleyard quote: Israel_photo_gallery]