Author: Jonathan Atari

Negev Desert views. Credit: Ronny Pohl

The Negev Desert comprises 60% of Israel and contains an impressive variety of dunes, red mountains, cliffs, craters, seas, and of course – local communities. Learn about Bedouin Tourism in Israel’s Negev Desert and social tourism.

negev desert tourism, a tourist touches a sacred rock solimar international

Tourism has a huge potential to positively impact communities, especially when it is conducted sustainably. In this blog post, we highlight “Community Trails” and Bedouin tourism in the Negev Desert, Israel. We interviewed Raz Arbel, a social tourism specialist, so get ready to be inspired!

Exposure to different social tourism projects can bring different perspectives to the table and help people think of ways to go about their own. Yet, universal “best practices” are rare, as every project should be adapted to the local context, and relate to the culture, needs, and resources the community possesses. In order to utilize tourism for sustainable development, cultural sensitivity, in-depth research, and immersion in the local environment are crucial.

The Bedouins are a semi-nomadic indigenous people, some of which still preserve their traditional lifestyle. The Negev is home to approximately 200,000 Bedouins, and in the past few years following Raz’s initiative, many have turned to tourism as a source of income.  

Negev Desert views. Credit: Ronny Pohl
Negev Desert views. Credit: Ronny Pohl

Raz Arbel has been an Israeli tourism professional for the last 30 years. He managed the Sde Boker Field School as well as the tourism department of Ramat HaNegev regional council. In recent years he is self-employed, leading various social tourism projects. In 2016, he partnered with Shay Yagel to create the “Community Trails” initiative, a network of marked multi-day hiking trails in Israel that aim to benefit local economies. Eventually, the project expanded to a wider product, with Bedouin hospitality at its core.   

What makes Bedouin Tourism in Israel and community trails a social tourism project?

Social tourism means that you enable local communities to earn a living from where they live, without forcing them to change their lifestyles. In the case of the Bedouins, for example, it means you don’t build special tents, but utilize the existing ones. If there’s a woman who bakes, she would bring bread for dinner. If someone makes carpets, you buy carpets from him to decorate the tent or sell to the visitors.  

What makes the community trails a successful desert product?

The desert product is an intimidating product. If you tell someone who has no prior experience of deserts, let’s hike in the desert, it would scare him. Here, through Community Trails, we facilitate movement within the desert in a safe way. There’s a path, it’s clearly marked, and you know you’ll reach a place to sleep with food at the end of the day. The Negev Highland Trail, for instance, spans from Merhav Am to Mitzpe Ramon and offers a beautiful desert landscape with archeological sites, natural water sources, and even wall paintings. 

When I guide tourists in the desert (on other occasions) I try to pass my self-confidence and certainty onto them. The Bedouin does it naturally. He sits on the ground, drinks tea from the fire, and walks barefoot at times. That magically changes your perception of the desert, and when a person gains this confidence he’s less intimidated and more open to experience the desert fully.

This issue is also the reason why the Israeli desert product that we helped develop is called the “friendly desert”.

So how did you get involved with the Bedouins?

In some parts of the Negev Highland Trail, Bedouin villages are the only communities around. When we traveled to the Bedouin villages to check if we could involve them in this development, we discovered that most have no experience in commercial hospitality. This was very surprising to us, given that hospitality is integral to Bedouin culture. The thing is that they don’t know the needs of a western tourist when they come to their tent.

 

photo of Raz Arbel who is a pioneer of bedouin tourism in israel
Photo of Raz Arbel

Can you give an example of this unfamiliarity?

Sure, typically when you sit around the fire with your host, the conversation stays around welcoming formalities. It is not part of Bedouin customs to talk about anything relating to your life, political views, diseases, whatever – as to not accidentally offend your guests or put them in an uncomfortable situation. It’s part of the Bedouin culture. The western tourist, on the other hand, often wants to hear about their host’s life. So our main efforts became creating a process that teaches the Bedouins how to host accordingly.

What was the training like?

Our first group was made of 16 men from the Arika Village (Wadi Arika). For 3 months, we taught them what tourism entails, what needs to be prepared in the tent so visitors feel comfortable, and how to tell a story about the tent, the camel, or the Bedouin lifestyle as a whole. We followed this up with individual mentoring that focused on additional services each host could offer his guests.

In total, we trained 12 groups of men and 12 groups of women all across the Bedouin community. We started with the community trails project, but once the Bedouins started hosting, they opened it to anyone interested. Suddenly, jeep tours started bringing in tourists, as well as other tourism operators, and the product became much wider in scope than what we had originally expected. Through that, more local products developed like shepherding, various workshops, and  more.

A traditional Bedouin tourism in israel experience involving brewing tea along a community trali

 

Can you share some major challenges you faced in the development of this project and how you responded to them?

One of the biggest problems is with availability, where most of the time, Bedouins don’t answer numbers they don’t know. To solve this challenge, we initially gave out our phone numbers to the public. This way, we were the mediators that would facilitate communication between interested tourists and the reservation hosts. 

Now, a Mitzpe Ramon based NGO called Keshet is building a website that will facilitate the reservation process for the Bedouins and provide phone availability. They’ll do this by making agreements with each individual Bedouin.

Another challenge was that many of the villages were unrecognized by the state. As a consequence, something as simple as building a proper western toilet was seen as a violation, and thus they were destroyed. After a lot of time and effort, we reached an agreement about the enforcement mechanisms settled upon the rule that the toilets would be of temporary construction and destroyed only if the whole village would be evacuated. 

Because of our work, the project eventually got planning approval, which was a significant achievement. This meant the villages received a permanent status as traditional localities.

What impact does social tourism have on the Bedouin people?

Firstly, it is economical for them. The Bedouin people can stay at home and earn money from it. Secondly, it fosters local pride. Third, it promotes cleanliness. Locals care more about what their environment looks like. Additionally, it bridges and connects communities, especially Jews and Bedouins, but also tourists from overseas and Bedouins. Lastly, it causes parents to encourage their kids to learn English so they can communicate with tourists.

Bedouin Desert weaving beautiful fabrics

So what you’re saying is that the project had not only a positive economic impact on the Bedouins, but also on the cultural level?

Yes, it caused them to return to their traditions, and in some cases even relearn them. At a certain stage, we wanted to involve women in the tourism industry, but because most of them don’t speak good English or Hebrew, they couldn’t host directly or share stories. So instead, we focused on traditional crafts like embroidery and weaving, making goat cheese, or traditional breads. Some of the younger girls had no idea how to do it, so we taught them, and it became an integral part of the hosting experience. As a result, the man was proud that his wife brought the traditional food or a hand-crafted dress she made. This involvement shows the many benefits of bedouin tourism in Israel.

So, eventually it creates pride in their tradition?

Absolutely! The most important thing that happens in authentic or social tourism is the development of local pride. I saw it in more places, not only among the Bedouins.  

That’s why I believe social tourism is one of the most interesting and important tourism products that will develop all across Israel in the next few years.

Thank you! 

The project’s new website (for Bedouin tourism products) will be launched at the beginning of 2022, so be sure to check it out for an authentic desert experience in Israel!

To sum up, social tourism can be greatly impactful, though challenging at times. Working alongside the community, understanding the local culture, as well as the tourists’ experiences, are key factors in the development of a successful and sustainable product. This case study of bedouin tourism in Israel is a perfect example!

At Solimar, we specialize in supporting and managing tourism for social development. Solimar’s project in Armenia, for instance, helped develop the cultural tourism industry primarily through community-based sustainable tourism. Have a look at more of our projects here.

Zitna beach, Croatia. Destinations are storyscapes, Jonathan Atari photography

Travel storytelling must be at the heart of any digital destination marketing strategy.  Every destination has an infinite amount of stories that can be utilized for celebrating its uniqueness, and fostering emotional relationships with potential and past visitors. This translates to a rise in visibility, consumer-brand trust, visitation, and eventually – profit.

This blog post will elaborate on why storytelling matters, and provide information as to what a DMO should consider when incorporating travel storytelling into their overall digital marketing strategy. DMOs should not only curate engaging stories through collaboration with local stakeholders, but also take advantage of the stories tourists share online. Digital storytelling in destination branding can therefore be seen as a co-creation process, where a DMO, as its official representative, can guide the flow.

father and son experiencing nature at Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail

Local stories are the base for Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, a Solimar project

Why Storytelling Matters?

Let’s start with a short story, a quasi-anthropological experiment.

A few years ago, two authors initiated the project Significant Objects to check if narratives can affect an object’s value objectively. They went out to thrift stores and garage sales and bought 100 objects for the average price of $1.28. Next, they listed every object for sale on eBay, and the winning bidder was mailed with his selected object. The objects were sold for no less than $3,612, a rise of 2700% in value in trade! So, how did they do that?

All they did was partner with dozens of authors who wrote a fictional story around every object (not without stating its falseness). Through this, they proved storytelling is not just another buzzword, but rather an approach that brings tangible results.

So why is storytelling important for branding? Apart from stories being interwoven in every aspect of human experience, life, and history, they are simply more memorable. Research shows that information conveyed as stories can be up to 22 times more memorable than facts. Moreover, they help create emotional connections between brands and consumers. These are deeper, longer-lasting and create a community around common values which are reiterated through the stories. Their personal nature leaves space for the consumer to dream, relate and engage with the brand, thus increasing interest, brand loyalty and ultimately, a transaction.

Travel Storytelling and Destination Marketing

Traveling is all about stories, and every destination has unique stories to tell. A DMO should have a clear vision about what the destination’s major value proposition for a determined target customer segment(s) is. What differentiates a destination? What can it offer that others cannot? Focus on the feelings your destination evokes, and capture it through storytelling.

tourists enjoying holiday, experiences that will become stories about the destination

Zitna beach, Croatia. Destinations are storyscapes, Jonathan Atari photography

Through local, authentic, and creative stories, a destination can portray itself as human and trustworthy. Instead of loud marketing campaigns, people want to have a sense of discovery, especially when it comes to traveling. In the pre-travel stage, destination storytelling gives potential tourists that exact feeling. They long for a journey or holiday, and discover quality content that nourishes this desire.

A good travel story will ignite a target audience reader’s imagination, and make them lose himself in the story. In a way, his attitudes would change to reflect the story, immerse in it. A DMO should hence create digital content, travel writing, that will move a buyer down the decision making process by inspiring rather than informing. After all, decisions are mostly emotional, not logical, so storytelling is your destination’s best card.

Starting a travel blog can be a fantastic way to share the richness of life at your destination. It is perfect for building a sense of a place through real experience, beyond must-see lists, itineraries, practical information or events. People can comment, share and engage with passionate local people at the destination. This in turn, provides the potential tourist with a more holistic experience of the destination.

As opposed to social media, blog posts are “evergreen”, as they never disappear in constantly changing feeds. It is also beneficial for SEO purposes, targeting certain terms, and this increases visitation to your website and builds authority on the web. For an effective travel blog, keep a well-organized editorial board, to ensure you are reaching your goals. Consider integrating calls to action in your posts, to facilitate and encourage conversion. In other words, through travel articles and storytelling you have more tools to address some of the most fundamental aspects of digital marketing.

How to use storytelling in digital destination marketing?

Here are some pillars you can use for your strategy. It is by no means a complete guide, but introduces the most important tips for what makes dependable destination branding storytelling:

Know your audience – Yes, also in digital storytelling. The more you understand your (potential) visitors and what they care about, the more you can convey a storyline that resonates with what they’re looking for.

The customer is your hero – instead of considering the destination as the main subject, think about the visitor. They should allegorically be the protagonist of your destination stories, and the destination, in its widest sense, the enabler for them to fulfill their desires, overcome challenges or go through transformative experiences.

Be thoughtful, be creative, be deep, be human. Think outside the box, share meaningful stories, be funny, unexpected, nuanced, tell stories for good. Experiment. Ask why? Promote values you believe in and that are at the heart of your destination’s brand. Be authentic. Storytelling is essentially about human experience, and the content about your destination should emphasize its uniqueness and foster deeper connections with readers.

Go local – Immerse in your community to get a deeper understanding of local life, that is, your destination storytelling raw material. There are so many inspiring stories to capture – past and contemporary traditions, local entrepreneurs, artisans, seniors, initiatives, engaged activists, and many more… Don’t shy away from stories about struggles, conflict or success – sometimes they turn to be the most inspiring and personal stories of all.

Go visual – Integrate images and videos into your destination storytelling strategy. When done thoughtfully, creatively, and aesthetically, they can attract your audience’s attention, give them a different perspective of the destination, and intrigue strong feelings that foster a connection to what the destination has to offer.

storytelling in digital destination marketing

Explore Minnesota visual storytelling campaign

Social Media Storytelling in Destination Marketing

Some say sharing travel experiences back home is not less important to tourists than the holiday itself. Whether it’s true or not, the digital world, and social media particularly, are saturated with stories about destinations. A DMO cannot ignore it, and must take user generated content (UGC) into account, and online social networks in its marketing strategy to ensure a coherent and impactful destination brand. Storytelling in destination marketing is thus twofold – both creating content and mediating relationships and messages amid this storytelling complex.

Destination branding is a complicated process which involves factors which can’t be fully controlled. A DMO cannot directly influence the quality of food served in a local restaurant or whether the sun would shine on a given day. Added to that is everything every visitor has ever shared about your destination on Facebook, Instagram or any other digital platform. Instead of seeing it as a threat, DMOs can harness these social media posts to enhance the brand, and treat it as an in-depth database to learn about their audience.

Consumers see user generated content as more reliable, accurate and authentic, because it is written by fellow visitors (seemingly without an ulterior motive). In fact, it’s a constant stream of stories describing and shaping a destination’s image. DMOs can sensitively guide these story lines, reacting, engaging, and involving users (including influencers) and stories that benefit their preferred narrative and target market. Lastly, they should consider promoting designated spots within the destination that can be used by visitors for taking photos and sharing them online.

visual and social media destination storytelling about local life in denmark
Visit Denmark shares hand-picked Instagram stories on their homepage.

At Solimar International, we acknowledge the benefits of digital storytelling in destination marketing. We keep that in mind for every tourism industry marketing strategy we plan or implement. It proves right over and over again – we see it in engagement figures, online visibility, and ultimately in visitor numbers and visitor satisfaction. Lately, a project Solimar has been working on in Atauro Island’s (Timor Leste) has been selected as part of the 2021 top 100 destination sustainability stories. It’s a win-win situation where users receive original and relevant stories, and local stakeholders, as well as DMOs, have another channel for sharing their passions and promoting their destination effectively.

Storytelling must be at the heart of any marketing plan. Take one of our courses to learn more about destination marketing and management. Visit our Institute for Sustainable Destinations website today: https://institute.solimarinternational.com/

“We rely confidently on Solimar's deep technical experience and professionalism as tourism consultants. You always are exceeding our expectations.”
Leila Calnan, Senior Manager, Tourism Services Cardno Emerging Markets

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