Twenty Bedouin residents of the Negev are taking a special tourism course aimed at giving them tools to develop Bedouin tourism.
The course, launched by the Ramat Negev Regional Council at the Bedouin’s request, includes lectures on how to present themselves to an audience and how to price a camel ride. They take field trips and discuss the preferences of the average Israeli tourist. They meet once a week for three hours, and this week they met at Mount Arkub, a favorite route for cyclists.
The meeting place was the service station at Ein Avdat. The participants arrived a little late, after a day’s work. No one seemed upset about the delay. “Desert time,” they explained.
Despite the different perceptions of time, the regional council officials and the Bedouin have similar goals.
“The primary aim is for them to develop new sources of income,” explains Zafrir Shaham, the course coordinator. “But the secondary objectives are no less important. There is a desire to make the Bedouin feel they are equals, that they’re part of the experience.”
Most of the men in the jeeps barreling down Mount Arkub are in their thirties and forties, except for Id Kashahar, who had been a Nature and Parks Authority inspector for 20 years. A decade ago he opened a Bedouin tent for tourists. Although already engaged in the hospitality business, he registered for the course to learn more and to be able to pass on his knowledge to his sons.
“Instead of doing damage to nature, tourism will give them a way to develop economically and take care of the environment,” he said.
Salah, who is sitting next to Id in the jeep, says he opened a hospitality tent a few months ago, but admits that he doesn’t really know how to run it. “I came here to become more professional,” he said.
Although there are already many Bedouin hospitality sites, another participant, Salam Abu Wadj, is critical of them. “Most of the tent sites today in the south are a few Jews who set up a business, took two Bedouin to bake pita and called it Bedouin hospitality,” he said. “But when people come they drink Ashkenazi tea.”
In the Ramat Negev region there are some 50 sites that were developed specifically for cycling. During a hike, Assaf Amihai from Geofun at Midreshet Sde Boker explains that cyclists like the paths used by camel caravans because of the incline. Such paths generally have an incline of no more than 18 degrees, and what’s good for the camels is also good for the average rider. Another advantage is that the camels’ hooves clean and smooth the ground, making it even more comfortable for bike riders.
The course participants know the area well, often better than their teachers. “The Bedouin are our neighbors and natural partners in developing the Negev and developing authentic desert tourism,” said Shmulik Rifman, chairman of the regional council. “This type of cooperation will help develop employment in the region, but no less it will enrich the tourist experience that we are offering and will lead to recognition and cooperation among all the area’s residents.”
Abu Wadj said this is an opportunity to get to know Israelis directly. “I want to continue to make a living and maintain my culture, and want Israelis to know what a Bedouin really is, not merely hear about him in the media.”
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