Tourism as a bridge for inter-cultural understanding and reconciliation despite the COVID-19 challenges: an interview with Dr Itsik Peres

Alex Altshuler (Faculty of Social Welfare and Health Sciences, School of Social Work, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel)

Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes

ISSN: 1755-4217

Article publication date: 7 June 2021

Issue publication date: 21 July 2021

311

Abstract

Purpose

The interview with Mr Itsik (Isaac) Peres aims to provide a set of insights from the field – through global, Middle-Eastern and Israeli lenses – on some of the major challenges for the tourism industry in the face of COVID-19.

Design/methodology/approach

This paper consists of an academic interview with Mr Itsik (Isaac) Peres and presents an engaging discussion between the experienced and knowledgeable tour guide and a scholar of resilience.

Findings

Mr Peres calls for a balanced approach that views health considerations as the top priority but at the same time believes that the tourism industry may – at least partially – adapt itself to the global pandemic and operate through a “new normal” during COVID-19. It is also claimed that there is no conflict between necessary international standards and local knowledge, creativity and adaptation measures. Mr Itsik Peres also addresses the potential major local and regional opportunities for the tourism industry and for the society as a whole that may emerge because of the new Abraham Accords (a peace treaty between Israel, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed in August 2020).

Originality/value

This paper presents an original and comprehensive analysis of the major challenges and solutions for the tourism industry in the face of COVID-19 through the lenses of an experienced professional in the field. The interview provides the reader with short-term and long-term “take away” messages for more effective and adaptive functioning of the tourism industry – during the COVID-19 epidemic and following its hopeful end.

Keywords

Citation

Altshuler, A. (2021), "Tourism as a bridge for inter-cultural understanding and reconciliation despite the COVID-19 challenges: an interview with Dr Itsik Peres", Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes, Vol. 13 No. 3, pp. 397-400. https://doi.org/10.1108/WHATT-02-2021-0022

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

As of January 2021, the COVID-19 global pandemic that started in December 2019 is still here. It has affected the whole globe and has disproportionally impacted the tourism and hospitality sector. This mega-crisis is different from any disaster that the humanity recently experienced in its global spread, scope and in its unprecedented level of uncertainty and complexity. In the face of such a gigantic hit for the tourism industry, it seems that there is a special importance in learning from insightful professional voices from the field on the effective coping with the pandemic. Professional navigation through such deep uncertainty creates a major challenge for the whole sector and the interview with Mr Peres tries to address it. Through engaging discussion, Mr Itsik (Isaac) Peres presents his comprehensive, nuanced and down-to-earth applied approach – addressing both challenges and opportunities – to achieving and maintaining resilience of the tourism and hospitality industry in the face of an unprecedented complexity created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr Itsik Peres, a licensed tour guide, was born and raised in Tel Aviv (Israel). Throughout his career, Mr Peres have experienced a special connection to the vision of David Ben-Gurion, the “founding father” and the first prime minister of the State of Israel. Ben-Gurion claimed that Israel's future depends on the ability of its residents to develop the Negev desert that constitutes over 60% of the state's territory. Mr Peres decided to move south following Ben-Gurion's vision and live in Beersheba, the capital of the Negev. Following his advanced academic studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, he studied tour guiding and has worked as a professional tour guide for the past 15 years. He perceives tour guiding as a very special profession that allows one to meet people of diverse populations and enjoy extraordinary and meaningful experiences. Believes that “every person is a whole world.”

Interview

WHATT:

In your opinion, what are the main challenges – locally and globally – experienced by the tourism professionals due to COVID-19?

Peres:

Locally speaking, the tourism industry in Israel has developed greatly in recent years and 2019 specifically was the best ever year for the tour guides in Israel, with over 4 million tourists visiting the country. The hope of the guides was that the positive trend would continue in 2020 as well, but then the humanity encountered the global COVID-19 pandemic that fundamentally impacted people's lives and disproportionally affected the local and global tourism industry.

In my opinion, the main current challenge in the world of tourism is how to produce new safe platforms adapted to the current challenging situation that will allow the tourism industry to continue functioning without compromising health and safety of the travelers.

One potential solution to the above challenge could be based on trips in small “organic” (the most inner circle of interactions – the limited group of people one meets on a very frequent basis) groups, pending all group members have been found negative to COVID-19. In addition, trips should focus on visiting sites where employees are not exposed to the virus and striving receiving services from people who are not infected with the virus. This is a huge challenge that requires a significant amount of coordination and is characterized multiple interfaces.

I also believe that in time of the pandemic all preparations for the trips need to dramatically change. Tourists strive for confidence that they will not be exposed to COVID-19 during the trip. We should look for methods to ensure maximum health and safety for all tourists. The same is required from hotels and hostels. Their reception area must be declared and ensured as a “green” territory without COVID-19-positive patients. I also believe that to prevent spread of the pandemic in tourist areas, a mechanism must be set up to carry out rapid COVID-19 tests on every island or “green” tourist site. The whole industry is in the midst of a huge turmoil, but I believe that we should continuously look for creative solutions.

WHATT:

What are the main short-term and long-term opportunities that may arise – locally and globally – during and following the COVID-19 worldwide epidemic?

Peres:

In my opinion, there should be found a successful combination of local uniqueness/creativity/knowledge on the one hand and globally binding and transparent standards aimed to keep highest standards of health and safety for the travelers across the globe. The above balance or combination are extremely important during the pandemic but are also clearly important, in my opinion, following it. I believe that maintaining effective balance between basic international standards and at the same time fostering locally developed creative solutions without compromising health could create significant opportunities for the tourism industry.

WHATT:

In your opinion, how could Abraham Accords (a peace treaty between Israel, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed in August 2020) affect the tourism in those countries and the Middle East as a whole?

Peres:

These are historical agreements that open up, among others, new markets locally and globally. Is always beneficial for the tourism industry but is especially exiting in current extremely challenging times for the global and local tourism industries. Beyond the economic benefit for all the sides, the reconciliation, reciprocal acquaintance and cultural exchange may and should have huge societal impacts in the short and the long terms. I believe that reciprocal visits, exchanges and ongoing contacts between individuals, communities and officials could build multiple long-term bridges for the benefit of all the stakeholders and could potentially serve as a positive catalyst for tourism enhancement – and potentially other positive developments – in the Middle East region as a whole.

WHATT:

What would be your main advices – locally and globally – for the politicians and decision-makers regarding the tourism industry during and following the COVID-19?

Peres:

In my opinion, international cooperation in fighting the pandemic in general and dealing with its tourism-related consequences in particular is of huge importance. I propose to establish an international committee on the topic of tourism in the face of COVID-19 that will be composed of a diverse group of professionals and decision-makers. This committee should consolidate guidelines, evidence-based advice and international standards for the tourism industry functioning during the COVID-19 epidemic. Those guidelines and standards are absolutely essential for the effective response of the industry to COVID-19.

WHATT:

(Beyond COVID-19) What is so special about the tourism in Israel and especially the region you focus most on – the Negev desert and the city of Beersheba?

Peres:

I believe that first and foremost it is the warmth and openness of the people. Specifically for the Negev region during the COVID-19 times, luckily for us, the desert area is characterized by a lot of space. You can walk in the desert while maintaining the necessary health requirements of physical distancing. The existence of tourism in the Negev region also allows the tour guides and other tourism providers to survive financially in these difficult times.

WHATT:

What is your main “take-away” message for the global tourism community?

Peres:

I would say first and foremost, patience […] patience […] and […] patience […]. It is difficult but absolutely necessary. In addition, I also believe that the tourism community should focus on developing diverse tourism options that could be feasible during the pandemic without compromising the health and safety requirements.

WHATT:

Mr Peres, thank you for this interview and kind regards!

Conclusion

Mr Peres' perspective provides us with a number of major strategic “take-away” messages. First, he advocates for a “new normal” – a patient and balanced approach that views health considerations as the top priority but at the same time believes that the tourism industry may – at least partially – adapt itself to the global pandemic and to operate through new diverse and creative tourism options during the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, Mr Peres stresses the importance of significant increase of coordination and cooperation – nationally and internationally – among all the stakeholders in the tourism industry and beyond it to allow effective and continuous functioning in the face of the pandemic. Third, it is also claimed that there is no conflict between necessary international standards to fighting the pandemic in the tourism industry and local knowledge, creativity and adaptation measures. Actually, Mr Peres urges to actively establish a broad international committee that will create an evidence-based short-term and long-term “roadmap” for the tourism and hospitality sector. Fourth and lastly, Mr Itsik Peres also addresses the major potential – generally and especially in the current harsh times for the hospitality industry – of the recent Abraham Accords (a peace treaty between Israel, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed in August 2020) for the regional tourism sector and beyond. In addition to the economic opportunities for all the sides, he claims that reconciliation, reciprocal acquaintance and cultural exchange may and should have huge societal impact and serve as a positive catalyst for the Middle East region as a whole.

Corresponding author

Alex Altshuler can be contacted at: alex.altshuler@gmail.com

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