Rabee has created a form of tourism which changes existing social systems and progresses towards more egalitarian, inclusive societies. Rabee’s exchange tourism leads to equity by helping marginalized rural communities rediscover their strength and by taking economically powerful urban communities out of their protective bubble. Both parties engage in a two-way equal exchange in which each side learns and contributes. The tourism revenue is invested in the marginalized communities’ economic development, thus narrowing the gap further.
Rabee’s exchange tourism generates funds which are invested in the development of marginalized rural areas. In exchange tourism, urban dwellers visit rural areas to get acquainted with their culture and traditions, and the tourism revenue is channeled towards the economic development of the local community. Thus exchange tourism creates a niche for marginalized rural communities in national economies and helps lift them out of poverty without relying on unsustainable financial aid.
Exchange tourism also bridges the divide between marginalized rural communities and the rich but insulated urban population. The frequent trips are an opportunity for each party to know the “other” and get firsthand impressions of the other community without the taint of stereotypes; the two groups engage in an equal relationship, and friendships are formed. Rabee’s idea is spreading within each community, and he is creating a cadre of change-makers who are expanding the reach of his program and deepening its impact by promoting interaction between the urban and rural populations.
Moreover, the two-way equal exchange of exchange tourism allows rural communities to develop pride in their culture, to preserve their unique identity and traditions from extinction, and to help urban communities learn about their cultural heritage. Not only do the local people get to teach other about their culture and thus ensure its survival, but they are also able to help the visitors from the city connect with their roots.
Rabee has created a simple, solid, and easily replicable model. In exchange tourism, the tourism revenue generated is invested in the local community according to its needs and preferences. The model also relies on awakening local change-makers using social marketing tools and offering hip and cool activities to attract youth from the city to the rural areas. Exchange tourism also utilizes the assets of the rural communities and gives them a sense of pride in their culture as it is appreciated by the visitors. Rabee’s model of exchange tourism will be franchised in other countries in the Arab world under the name of Zikra, his CSO.
Poverty in the Arab world is mainly a rural phenomenon; wealth is concentrated in cities, away from 48% of the population that lives in rural areas. Inhabitants of rural areas have low incomes because they live on arid lands. They are excluded not only from economic development but also from public services that are concentrated in urban areas that support education and skill-building.
Though a number of income generation programs exist in the Arab world, they are of a purely economic nature and do not consider the root cause of impoverishment: marginalization. The region boasts one of the highest levels of charity that perpetuates the dependency of poor areas on outside aid and reinforces the core-periphery relationship between cities and rural areas.
There are a number of ethnic groups throughout the region that reside in remote rural areas and maintain their separate cultural identities; most are of Bedouin or tribal origins. The different ethnic minorities in the Arab world amount to 40 million people, half of which live in poverty. The Bedouins and other ethnic groups are neglected and marginalized, as the governments focus on city inhabitants. A social gap prevails, resulting in the spread of stereotypes among both groups as well as social tensions.
Many Arab countries promote tourism as an income generating activity that can pull rural communities out of poverty. However, the income from tourism often does not trickle down to the local community. While a few fair or sustainable tourism activities exist, they do not promote interaction with the local community. Existing ecotourism activities mostly benefit business owners and the environment. It is difficult to guarantee that the local community will receive fair wages, their traditions will be respected, or that tourism will provide a lasting solution to their impoverishment. The fundamental problem of discrimination and consequent economic marginalization remains.
Discrimination flourishes because urban and rural communities do not have the opportunity to work together and find common ground. Young people living in the capital cities of the region have an affluent, westernized lifestyle and are generally out of touch with their roots and indigenous culture. On the other hand, because of physical distance and economic marginalization from urban centers, the rural population has had limited experience with the urban population.
Volunteer tourism activities seldom involve interaction with the local community, and those that do tend to reinforce the core-periphery relationship between visitors and the local community. Volunteer tourism does not consider the rural population’s concerns about integrity and its desire to be freed of the stigma of poverty and dependency. It is worth noting that rural and desert communities have been pressured by the governments of the Arab world to abandon their indigenous identities and become part of mainstream society. In some cases, an imposed process of settlement and urbanization forced the Arab Bedouin to change their traditional way of life and means of livelihood, leading to the attenuation of their traditional social system and displacement in national economies.
Rabee’s exchange tourism leads to equity by helping marginalized rural communities rediscover their strength and by taking economically powerful urban communities out of their protective bubble. Both parties engage in a two-way equal exchange in which each side learns and contributes. The tourism revenue is invested in the marginalized communities’ economic development, thus narrowing the gap further.
Rabee established his CSO, Zikra, in 2007. To date he has carried out about 20 trips consisting of activities including tomato-picking, cooking traditional dishes, and learning a new handicraft. On regular trips visitors engage in a number of touristic activities and pay a fee. An average trip generates close to US$1000. Around 10% of the fee covers the cost of the trip and 90% is committed to a loan fund to finance a project of a household in the village
Tourists get to meet the local entrepreneur and track the progress of the project when they come back for a visit. Typical projects include raising chickens, starting a bakery, or selling clothes. In return for the loan, the borrower teaches visitors a skill and helps other entrepreneurs in the community. Rabee instituted such loan conditions because the local culture in Al Karak views interest rates as usury. When the loan is repaid, the money goes towards a new micro-loan to assist another local initiative, and funding is able to grow in a sustainable way.
In addition to the income generated directly by the trips, exchange tourism has placed Al Karak on the national and international tourism map, generating many indirect income opportunities. Due to Rabee’s efforts, Al Karak is now featured in the Lonely Planet travel guidebook. The exchange tourism program, when applied in 5 areas over 3 countries, has the potential to generate US$1 million in net revenue to be invested in the local communities.
The trips have also succeeded in connecting locals of Al Karak with people from the city, bringing 20 tourists from the city in close interaction with 75 individuals from the local community and establishing broader interaction between 300 people from Al Karak and 1000 visitors from Amman. The groups have developed bonds with each other and collaborated to find different solutions to existing problems, particularly through networks of professionals from the city. By interacting and working together, the rural and urban communities overcome stereotypes and create the potential for greater social change through cooperation.
Inhabitants of Al Karak have found friends in city inhabitants, whom they had previously perceived as arrogant. City inhabitants have found reliable partners in Karakis whom they had often labelled as lazy. A lawyer who joined one of the trips helped the locals take legal action against a company which was polluting the water in their land. The trips make room for more collaboration because the visitors, who are wealthy, educated youth from the city, are the future decision makers of the country.
Through Zikra, the local community takes pride in its culture, as it showcases its art and traditions to visitors. Youth from Al Karak express their art and culture through crafts and film-making. By rediscovering Jordan through the trips and feeling that they can make a difference in their country, some young Ammanis, who were previously alienated, were encouraged to start initiatives of their own in Jordan at a time when they were considering leaving the country.
To attract these young future leaders, Rabee had to reach out to students as well as established professionals and leading business sector organizations. He analyzed the interests of the urban population and based on their needs he created hip and modern activities to engage them. He used web-based social networking tools and conducted PR campaigns in local print and television media that persuaded more visitors to come by broadcasting videos from previous visits and testimonies from tourists and locals.
The Zikra model has room for replication in countries like Egypt where urban dwellers are starting to seek national tourism destinations, engaging in activities such as desert safaris, hiking and geo-caching. Though some tourists have heightened environmental awareness and hold a respect for nature, few interact with the local community. Bedouins in Egypt interact with the tourists mostly as service providers, and often in tourist resorts away from their own surroundings. Under traditional forms of tourism, tourists from the city seldom get to know the local culture. More often than not, tourists bargain to obtain services or acquire crafts, unknowingly depriving the local community, especially women, from fair tourism revenue.
Rabee stresses that the main elements of exchange tourism are gaining the local community’s trust and then taking a close look at its culture, assets, and needs in order to mould exchange activities accordingly. Another important strategy is building a network in the cities and tailoring tourism campaigns to the preferences of the urban population. Lastly and most importantly, exchange tourism is built on a mindset that believes that both parties contribute to the transaction and should feel they have something to offer in the relationship.
Now Rabee is diversifying his touristic activities base as well as his tourist base. Encouraging suggestions from the locals and the visitors, he has added educational activities and art programs which both visitors and local children enjoy.
To increase the number of visitors, Rabee has started marketing the venue as an ideal quiet and peaceful location for training workshops and business retreats. He has also reached out to schools and universities to bring students to the village as part of their community service.
To further expand his program, Rabee has established a number of partnerships with a number of multinational corporations (among them Toyota) to direct their corporate social responsibility activities towards poor areas in Jordan, and to engage their employees in exchange tourism activities. Rabee is also now exploring opportunities for collaboration with the Minsitry of Tourism. Additionally, Rabee is training local guides in Petra, the renown tourist destination, to get visitors to interact with the local community in addition to the sightseeing.
Rabee will lay the foundation for exchange tourism in Jordan by building facilities and rest stops and providing maps for remote destinations, and by implementing a comprehensive training program for local guides on the principles of exchange tourism, on business planning and on marketing. Rabee will involve five citizen sector organizations working in five different areas to spread exchange tourism. Rabee will raise funds to cover the initial cost of program implementation and training, so the implementing organizations can invest all tourism revenue in the local community. In a few short years, Zikra will be generating US$ one million per year, all of which will be invested by the local communities in the local communities, with a rigorous governance structure, and the support expenses of US$ 250,000 will be financed through corporate support.
Rabee’s model is being followed by others in Jordan. The Abraham Path Initiative has started shifting its traditional volunteer tourism activities towards equal interaction with the local community. Also, the Ministry of Tourism has approached Rabee to consider the applicability of his model to some of their programs.
Rabee will spread his model in Egypt, Morocco and Lebanon by franchising Zikra to local citizen sector organizations that work with the community, and training their personnel on exchange tourism activities. In the next year, Rabee will replicate his model in Palestinian refugee camps in addition to other impoverished villages throughout Jordan. In the next three years, Rabee will bring his model to Lebanon. In the next five years, Rabee will establish his exchange tourism in Egypt with the help of Egyptian CSOs working with Bedouins on the Sinai Peninsula and Western Desert oases, improving their livelihood through the revival of traditional crafts.
Rabee has always felt connected to both urban and rural Jordan. Born in the capital city, Amman, he always had a yearning to break out of the urban bubble from an early age. As soon as he got his driver’s license he ventured to rural areas to meet the people there. Upon reading a book about discrimination against the people from the rural area near where his parents had been born and where he still had family ties, Rabee decided to spend time there. He found that the people were discriminated against because of their darker skin color and were labelled as lazy and useless, and as a result they could not find work to keep a decent livelihood.
At his university, Rabee started groups and activities that would create a better understanding of Jordan’s diverse cultural heritage by forming a cultures and traditions club to promote cultural appreciation among the youth.
Rabee pursued studies and a career in marketing and advertising in Jordan and Lebanon. After his studies in Lebanon, he went back to Jordan to start up a Lebanese advertising agency. He then worked with Toyota, the automobile manufacturer, and started the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility program in Jordan.
In his free time, Rabee tried to reach out to the rural areas. As a Christian, he approached a major Islamic charity and social services group which distributed food and clothing to poor, rural areas, and began working with them. Rabee drove a van loaded with food, clothes, and medicine on his first trip, though he felt very uneasy and awkward and thought that it would hurt the rural people’s pride to receive charity and eventually create a dependency. He decided to stick around until he found a better way of helping the rural Ghawarna people out of poverty. Rabee learned a lot about their life and culture and realized that he was not a rich man; he was poor in regard to knowledge and culture and had a lot to learn from the inhabitants of rural Al Karak. That is when he decided to start exchange tourism.
Upon starting Zikra, Rabee used his marketing and social networking skills to market his exchange tourism activitiesamong modern youth in Amman and to encourage companies to adopt corporate social responsibility activities. As enthusiasm for his program spread in Amman and in the rural areas, more people left their urban bubble to learn about their country and more rural people participated in the exchange by talking and teaching about their traditions, cooking, and way of life. Natural leaders began to emerge from both sides of the exchange, and Rabee decided to leave his successful career with Toyota so that he could devote more time to Zikra. He worked for the Children’s Museum in Amman, which gave him more time for Zikra and taught him about fundraising with corporations and presenting a win-win proposition.