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ATG Speach at ToDo! Award 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen:

First of all, I would like to express my gratitude to each and every one of you, and especially to those who were involved in the decision to grant this exceptional award to our organization Alternative Tourism Group (ATG). Also, I would like to thank the “Studienkreis für Tourismus und Entwicklung” (Institute for Tourism and Development) for realising the idea of the To Do Contest for more than 10 years now. ToDo And the Swiss Foundation for Solidarity in Tourism and the European Travel Insurance Corp. for the funding of the To Do-Award and for creating thereby a platform for sustainable tourism initiatives to present themselves to a wider public and for providing the resources for their further development.

Tourism has the potential to establish a connection between the receiving society and the outside world and to enable visitors to gain insight into the life and culture of the host community. These social functions of tourism play an important role in Palestine, a place where the people are isolated from the outside world because of 40 years of occupation and where we are denied the right to build our own and independent nation. Alternative Tourism, in particular, creates opportunities for human encounters in Palestine and therefore contributes to a growing mutual understanding among Palestinians and visitors from all over the world.

It is clear, I think, that the liberation of the Palestinian people will come only with the help of the global community. However, our experience has taught us that the understanding of the situation on the ground is difficult without visiting Palestine especially because the mainstream Western media has failed to expose the oppressive situation in which Palestinians find themselves. The work of NGOs – from human rights and advocacy groups to organizations like ATG – makes an important contribution in exposing the true nature of the Israel/Palestine conflict to a broader public. Only when people around the world come to see and understand the realities on the ground – the occupation, the discrimination, the suffering, and the violence that cause them – only when they have seen these realities, will they be driven to go home and explain to their families, friends, and even governments what is happening on the ground, and to take a stand against Israel’s unjust policies. Travel and tourism, as we all know, are educational tools that are perhaps more powerful than any others. In the case of Palestine , this kind of education has the potential to advance the understanding of the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to contribute to the framing of a just solution.

It is a great honour to be here speaking before a group of individuals who are so passionate and committed to making tourism a positive force for change in the world. However, I think that it is important to recognize that, in the Palestinian context, this award is much more than just an honour: it is a powerful tool that can help my people in our struggle to live in peace and with dignity.

Of course, Palestine is so much more than the current situation has made it, and tourism in Palestine should never be focused exclusively on the current political situation, the Israeli occupation and its effects, presented in the mainstream media often in distorted ways. For billions of people all around the world, Palestine is the holy centre of their faith, while for others it remains one of the cradles of civilization. It is in Palestine and its surrounds that many of the great religions of the world have their origins. More than that, it is home to the descendents of the earliest practitioners of those faiths. Our country is also the home of historical wonders and archaeological treasures of remarkable importance to the history of all humankind. ToDo

As a result of this, the tourism potential in Palestine is truly remarkable. If only Palestine was freed from the yoke of the occupation and given real economic and political autonomy, the growth of the tourism industry could lead to great prosperity for Palestinian communities. We saw that potential come incredibly close to becoming a reality in the lead up to the year 2000 with the preparations for the Millennium. However, the Israeli offensives that began in September of that year destroyed much of the investments of several million dollars in tourism infrastructure of the preceding years, just a few months before the height of the celebrations. This was devastating for many Palestinians, especially in the Bethlehem area, who had invested both their money and their livelihoods only to see their efforts and their futures crushed under the treads of Israeli tanks. In fact, ATG’s research has shown that the Israeli army systematically targeted tourism infrastructure during their invasions, shelling hotels, damaging historic sites and harassing or even deporting visitors [to Palestine] before they are even able to enter the country.

This, I think, is a clear sign that understands that those who see the occupation with their own eyes will turn decidedly against it, and even join my people’s struggle for freedom. And it is with recognition like that which you have given us here today that we will be able to overcome the many obstacles against us and to rebuild our tourism industry according to a responsible tourism model. Through events like this conference, people around the world will learn of our situation and decide to come and see it for themselves.

ToDo Our people are full of optimism and determination to achieve their goals and gain their space on the world conscious. They are hopeful that the international community will not forget them and will give them the chance to contribute to human kind and humanity. They realize that ending the occupation and solving the conflict on the region by building a just peace will give more opportunities for the people of the region to enjoy more cooperation and work to the best of their children and the new generation. Solving the conflict on a just way will give the chance for the visitors to encounter the people to enjoy their cultures, their hopes, their stories, and their life.

When they do, ATG will be there to ensure that they experience all that Palestine has to offer.

Thank you very much.

Rami Kassis
9 March 2007 Berlin
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