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New Tourism Venture Promotes Peace in Holy Land

<p>A new Palestinian-Israeli tourism venture is based on the concept that sharing food can create a better understanding of diverse cultures.</p>
Image: Dome of the Rock
A view of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City following a snowstorm is seen from the Mount of Olives on Dec. 13, 2013. MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP - Getty Images

“Breaking bread,” an expression that typically refers to the act of enjoying a meal together and the bonding that results from the experience, is the philosophy behind a new tourism initiative.

Breaking Bread Journeys, a Palestinian-Israeli experiential tourism joint-venture headquartered in Jerusalem, is based on the concept that sharing food while traveling can create deep connections and a better understanding of diverse cultures.

The project was recently founded by two tour operators: Elisa Moed, an American-born Israeli Jew who is chief executive of Israel-based Travelujah, and Christina Samara, a Christian Palestinian, owner and managing director of Samara Tourist and Travel Agency.

Image: Elisa Moed and Christina Samara
Breaking Bread Journeys was created by Elisa Moed, left, and Christina Samara.Courtesy Breaking Bread Journeys

“We shared a vision for what could be done,” Moed said. “By operating together, we could offer a much more seamless tour to travelers who want to see both Israel and the Palestinian territories.” Programs provide one tour guide, ease in crossing borders and a comprehensive program, features that help provide authentic experiences that would otherwise be impossible, she said.

The co-founders spoke to NBC News earlier this week before the official public U.S. launch at The New York Times Travel Show in New York on Friday.

The two women met several years ago when they were invited to participate in the Holy Land Marketing Cooperation panel, created by the Office of the Quartet Representative Tony Blair. The Quartet is an international group with a mandate that includes supporting Palestinian economic development.

The panelists were brought together to identify impediments that were limiting cooperation within the tourism sector and to identify ways they could work together. “But four years ago the political climate was not great and we couldn’t proceed,” Samara said. But she and Elisa developed a friendship. “We decided one-to-one, woman-to-woman, business-to-business, to work together.”

So Breaking Bread Journeys was created.

“We shared a vision for what could be done. By operating together, we could offer a much more seamless tour to travelers who want to see both Israel and the Palestinian territories.”

Tours began on a small scale in the summer. Five are currently offered, typically six to eight days, but all can be customized. Small groups of 10 to 20 people, access to areas that are typically unavailable to most tourists, like visits to private homes and opportunities to engage directly with people in local communities, are key features.

Tourists visit everything from classic historic and cultural sites to the best place for hummus. And they meet many of the region’s diverse people: secular Israelis, Hasidic, Yemenite and Moroccan Jews, Armenians, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, Christians and Muslims. Some tours include an evening visit with Bedouins in the Judean Desert or encounters with Druze in the Golan Heights.

“It’s really a melting pot over there” said Samara.

Visitors to Nablus, a city that “is not yet touristy and very authentic,” Moed said, can take in old hammams, an underground bakery and a colorful ancient market “with food and spices you don’t see anywhere else.”

And, of course, each tour includes a daily “breaking bread” experience. “That’s what we do on our tours — we eat a lot!” Samara said.

“To sit around the dinner table, just enjoying a meal together, being human together — it just brings you back to the basics. It’s a beautiful way to break down barriers.”

Shawna Goodman of Montreal recently participated in a tour visiting locations in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. One event involved cooking classic Middle Eastern dishes alongside four members of “Chefs for Peace,” a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim professional chefs. Home visits included personal encounters with a Jewish Hasidic woman who expressed the importance of bringing family together and taught the group how to make traditional Challah, and a Palestinian woman who “took her cooking very seriously,” Goodman said. “She made us typical Palestinian food” — frika soup made with roasted wheat; baked chicken dry rubbed with cinnamon, sumac, cumin and tons of onions served on homemade pita; and semolina cake made with freshly juiced oranges.

“To sit around the dinner table, just enjoying a meal together, being human together — it just brings you back to the basics,” Goodman said. “It’s a beautiful way to break down barriers.”

But Breaking Bread Journeys’ impact goes beyond cultural understanding, the founders said. Traditionally, most tours spend half a day in Palestinian areas, resulting in about 10 cents for each tourist dollar spent going to the local economy, but Breaking Bread Journeys’ programs result in more money going directly to these communities, Moed said. “We design our programs to up that substantially,” typically returning 27 cents on each tourist dollar spent, she said. “It’s our way to improve lives and further peace and stability.”

Samara Tourist and Travel Agency is receiving support for marketing and promotion of Breaking Bread Journeys from the United States Agency for International Development, as part of the agency’s strategy to develop the Palestinian tourism sector and to make a significant impact in job creation and investment, as a path to peace and stability.

Cheryl Hargrove, president of HTC Partners, a consulting firm specializing in cultural heritage tourism, said there is an international trend among travelers who desire immersive, authentic experiences. “What better way to learn about new cultures than through conversation with local residents over a meal?” she said. Breaking Bread Journeys offers participants “a unique educational exchange to learn about customs, cuisine and history from local perspectives.

“Travel can be a healing opportunity,” Hargrove said, and “this collaboration of two women from very different backgrounds demonstrates the power of travel as a tool for peace, understanding and cultural respect.”