In the classroom – members of the South American delegation learn the ropes at the Weitz Center.Felipe Brito is a 27-year-old Guatemalan villager who is working to develop the tourism industry in Nebaj, a town about 230 miles from the capital Guatemala City. While the results have been promising, Brito has been basically flying by the seat of his pants.
So when the opportunity arose to travel to Israel to learn about tourism in rural areas, Brito jumped at it. Literally. Last week, Brito took the first plane ride of his life and landed in Tel Aviv, along with thirty-two other South Americans from Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Panama to participate in a course on rural tourism, organized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Mashav program and the Weitz Center for Development Studies.
“The plane trip was astounding, it is a gift from heaven to be able to travel like that. I never ever thought I would come to Israel. It is fabulous to be here,” said Brito excitedly at the beginning of the course.
Like Brito, the group is excited and eager to learn, seeing Israel as a model for rural tourism and the ability to develop the industry, despite continuing political conflict.
“We have structured something [in Nebaj], but I need something concrete,” explained Brito. “I need to know if I am making the maximum use of what I have, and whether we will continue to improve with the way we are going, or will we come to a plateau in the system we are using, and what can we do to improve.”
For a period of three weeks , Brito and the rest of the group are studying economic and social development at the The Weitz Center, a non-governmental, non-profit, public organization, founded in 1963 to engage in planning, training and research activities related to rural regional development in Israel and the Developing Countries.
The Center was founded by Ra’anan Weitz in 1963, when he was head of the Settlement Department of the Jewish Agency. The Center conducts programs on subjects related to socio economic development, such as Industrial Development in Rural Areas, Local Economic Development, Rural Tourism Projects and Public and Business Administration in Rural Areas through training, international cooperation, academic programs, research and planning.
“Ra’anan was the mentor of the development of several regions, including the Lahish region,” explains Julia Margulies, director of the Weitz Center. “He thought that the Israeli approach might be valuable to other countries. We developed an approach and a working methodology.” On this particular course, since it is a short one, the approach will be taught, but not the methodology, Margulies explained.
Over lunch at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem at Mount Scopus during an opening day visit to Jerusalem, several of the participants outline their present functions back home and chat optimistically over what they hope to gain from the course.
“The idea is to learn about models of tourism. It is more than just technical knowledge that we are looking for,” says Jorge Corrales, 32, Head of Tourism in Colombia.
“Colombia has a similar situation to Israel, due to the conflict we are experiencing there. Although we do have rural tourism, there are too many rural possibilities, and the most valid ones need to be developed. We want to see what Israel has in this way so that we can apply it back home.”
Damaris Guerron, 28, is from Carche, Ecuador. She works as Head of Tourism for General Rene Llandu, who has provided funds for the development of border zones.
“We also have this problem in my country as it is a border with Colombia. We want to strengthen rural tourism in my province, agro-tourism, that is. To strengthen the communities, that have such natural beauty, and to teach and to learn from native guides.”
Lately, she says, of all the commerce that previously created income for her frontier province, has moved to Colombia.
“We want to capacitate the community, to give them the technical know-how and to teach them about making the economy more lucrative.”
Victor Rosales, 27, works for the Instituto Universitario de Turismo, IUTIRLA, in Venezuela, as well as for a travel agency called Viajes de Color.
“We are looking for alternatives on how to improve the quality of life in agriculture and rural zones not far from urban centers in Venezuela. We want to strengthen our tourist attractions such as camping and other activities, to learn how to create stronger studies, and improve the economy by learning how to develop speedier financing in order that villagers and micro businesses can develop and guarantee quality of life.”
The representative from Panama is Janete Teijera, 40, a project consultant from the Fundacion Nacional de Artesanias (The National Artists Foundation), which is working on a number of projects with international entities such as the Banco Inter-Americano de Desarollo, and with several foundations. “We are looking to improve the quality of life of artists so they can integrally improve their art and create benefits.”
Since Panama has access to rural tourism, the plan is to encourage tourists to meet the artists in their environment. “I want to learn how to evaluate and to carry out projects. My mission is to see how you can carry them out here in Israel and which bodies you involve,” she says. “Our projects are connected to the government and other government-related institutions. It is super-important to learn how you manage here.”
According to Margulies, the Weitz Center helps the participants deal with these issues through an integrated approach to economic and social development, combining the grassroots and government authorities.
“We use two types of approaches – you cannot make programs from above, you cannot impose them. But the population also cannot make plans without taking into account the possibility of funds from the government.”
The course teaches how to integrate the development of tourism together with other development of infrastructure, using economic, social, environmental and organizational integration.
“In each place we have to see how tourism will affect the population, by looking at who that population is, and whether it can absorb tourism. You have to ask whether tourism will improve employment and income and whether can this be carried out without paying the price of social disintegration.”
Together with teachers, guest lecturers and other local participants from different disciplines, the South American contingent works in five groups. Each group must come up with a project, choosing a country in their area that reflects the needs of each group.
“Over the course of the 25-day duration of the course, they will learn how to carry out a project,” says Margulies. “They have a list of needs. We say, you have to see what you can do. We teach techniques for evaluating projects.
The students have already visited Jerusalem and its environs, and will also be traveling to the Galilee, the Dead Sea, and the Negev, looking at kibbutzim and rural tourism in Israel. At the end of the course each group will give a presentation and the results of their course will be evaluated.
For Guatemala’s Brito, the course is about acquiring information on a personal and governmental level, with regards to tourism and development of resources.
“With the help of a Peace Corps volunteer, we first established a restaurant in this area, and this original project reflects the philosophy we are applying. We wanted to create employment and invite tourism, so we thought that the first step would be to open a much-needed restaurant. This was also a PR move.”
The restaurant has generated work for 14 employees who receive incentives for rent as well as grants and loans. They are subsidized by Sandwich, a North American food chain. As this project got underway they saw that it could be extended.
“We then decided to look at the artistic community and see what was happening there. We found they were earning very little and upon the advice of foreign visitors we induced them to increase their prices by five percent, which made a big difference.”
One thing led to another and visitors to the area began to ask for internet access which resulted in the opening of an internet café. These visitors then expressed a desire to learn Spanish. Since the area is home to two institutions of higher learning specializing in education, and for the past 12 years graduates have found themselves unemployed due to a flood in the job market, the territory was ripe for a Spanish language school.
“We got 50 students right away, without even any publicity,” says Brito. Now they have a website, www.nebaj.com, and despite ups and downs, the project is continuing to flourish.
” Nebaj is part of the Ishil triangle,” says Brito, “together with the neighboring villages of Chajul and Kotzal. This is the area that was most affected by the armed conflict from 1982-3 to 1994. Many people know this area very well, because they were involved in guerilla warfare in Sumalgrande and the Cuichamatana mountains. Now they would like to work there. This provides us with instant tour guides.”
Using the Israeli expertise that Brito is acquiring through his course, hopefully it won’t be long before those tour guides will be steadily employed.