Ramadan Tours in Israel Give Boost to Arab Tourism

A nonprofit uses the holiday to acquaint Jewish Israelis with the sites and food of the country’s Muslim minority.

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A tourist group visits Kafr Qasem for Ramadan.
A tourist group visits Kafr Qasem for Ramadan.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

After the terror attack in Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market this month, the Sikkuy nonprofit group promoting equal rights for Israeli Arabs assumed its Ramadan tours for Jewish Israelis would be hit by a wave of cancellations. Many Jews, it was feared, would prefer to steer clear of Arab towns and villages.

As it turns out, the number of cancellations was very limited. “We started the tours at the time of the Tel Aviv attack, which reduced the number of reservations for that weekend, but interest resumed and people are touring with us,” said Noam Horowitz, codirector of Sikkuy’s Shared Regional Tourism project.

He said the level of reservations has been “fine, even good, and that’s a surprise. So far we’ve reached the same numbers as the first year despite the difficult start.”

That’s nothing to take for granted. In the past, terror attacks, even when they were staged by West Bank Palestinians, have deterred Israelis from visiting Israeli Arab towns.

The tours, now marking their second year, not only bring Jewish Israelis in contact with Israeli Arabs, they provide a badly needed boost to businesses in cities like Nazareth and Baka al-Garbiyeh. They’re not the only Ramadan tours available, but Sikkuy offers the broadest array of packages, which run until July 5 on Thursday and Saturday evenings.

Apart from the fee for the tours, participants usually spend freely on their visits. The guides are all local residents, and throughout the towns, food stands dot the streets, while stores sell traditional sweets.

“Someone going on a tour to a new place always looks to buy something and bring it home as a souvenir, so in the end money comes into the community,” said Horowitz.

Tourism infrastructure and promotion are poor in Arab communities, even though more than half the residents of the Galilee are Arabs and Arab towns are filled with historic and religious sites.

As a result, local people promote domestic tourism on their own the rest of the year, Horowitz added. “The success of the Ramdan tours shows them it’s possible to develop their area from a tourism perspective, that they have something to show in their town, that’s there’s real interest,” he said.

Ramadan, which is marked by the nearly 20% of Israel’s population that is Muslim, began this year on June 7. While the month is marked by fasting during the day, Muslims break the fast at sundown at the Iftar dinner.

A typical Sikkuy tour starts at Nazareth’s Mary’s Fountain Square, where participants explore the alleys of the nearby open market as the daily fast comes to a close. The tours include the White Mosque, whose construction began in 1785 and continues to this day.

When the fast is called to an end, participants gather at an old mansion in the center of the market to meet the owners and have a cup of coffee before starting on a night tour of the city.

Horowitz said the culinary aspect of the tourism is what interests Jewish Israelis the most. Most are unaware of the attractions in Arab cities and towns, even ones close to their homes. Horowitz said he hoped an initial introduction of the sites and food of Arab towns would coax Israelis into touring on their own.

“These things have demand from foreign tourists and tourism niches such as pensioners,” Horowitz said. “I hope that as a result, when we run Ramadan tours, we’ll be able host people in homes throughout the year in Taibeh, Shefaram Sakhnin.”