Nancy Strichman
Spotlight on Civil Society

Tourism with a Twist

Local children at the first tree planting of the ‘White Hill Farm’, an urban agricultural center for residents of Yerucham and the neighboring Bedouin community of Rachma. February, 2018. (Courtesy of Atid Bamidbar).
Local children at the first tree planting of the ‘White Hill Farm’, an urban agricultural center for residents of Yerucham and the neighboring Bedouin community of Rachma. February, 2018. (Courtesy of Atid Bamidbar).

Hosting gaggles of kids and family visiting from abroad for years now, I think we have tried almost everything. We have raced around the country, visiting pottery making workshops, family-owned chocolate factories, herb and spice farms, boutique wineries, and horse ranches with rope courses, and we have enjoyed home hospitality for countless meals. Only in recent years did I realize that there is an official name for all of this: community-based tourism. And Israel is full of these opportunities.

Overlooking Yerucham Lake, with the town of Yerucham in the background (Courtesy of Simon Ben Yishai)

The town of Yerucham is an ideal case study to see how collaborative efforts for community-based tourism work in practice. Can’t find Yerucham on the map?  No worries. You will be hearing more about it, no doubt. With a population of 11,000, Yerucham is located right between the Yerucham Lake and the Yerucham Crater, and is well situated for any adventurous exploration of the Negev Desert. The town has made headlines in recent years for its unique Science Center, and is fast on its way to becoming a leader in robotics education.

Members of the robotics team of the Yerucham Science Center, January 2019. The local schools in Yerucham have consistently won top places in national robotics competitions, as well as prizes in international competitions. (Courtesy of Sefi Shlevin)

The first female mayor of Yerucham, Tal Ohana, was elected in October 2018, and is part of a new generation of leaders who have helped to spark development in industry, real estate and tourism in recent years. And even the birds seem to be cooperating, with a flock of rare songbirds making the news recently for an unexpected appearance over the Yerucham Lake for the first time in 50 years.

So what does community-based tourism look like in Yerucham? Well, first you will want to offer a place to stay. Back in 2014, a few years before terms such as ‘impact investing’ in Israel became popular, Yerucham became home to the first ‘social hotel’ in the country.

View of the Desert Iris Hotel, where a one-story office complex was remodeled to create an all-suites, 4-star ‘social hotel’. (Courtesy of Desert Iris Hotel).
From right – Amram Mitzna, former mayor of Yerucham and founding director of New Yerucham Fund, Debbie Golan, co-founder and president of Atid Bamidbar, Bobbie Higer, former Chair of Miami-Yerucham P2G Miami Steering Committee, and Michael Biton, former mayor of Yerucham, at Atid Bamidbar’s 25th anniversary event, December 2015. (Courtesy of Atid Bamidbar).

Envisioned as an anchor to enhance the tourism potential of the town, the Desert Iris Hotel was established by the New Yerucham Foundation (led by the former mayor, Amram Mitzna), together with private and public partners, including the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. As a social business, the bulk of the profits of the Desert Iris Hotel go directly to the community, specifically for social and educational programs for children in Yerucham. And by design, the majority of the hotel employees and suppliers of the hotel are residents of Yerucham or the surrounding areas.

Next, you will want to showcase the local community.  And indeed, decades before the term community-based tourism became well known, the nonprofit Atid Bamidbar (“Future in the Desert” in Hebrew), was working on creating a local tourism industry not only based on communal participation, but on the celebration of the distinct cultures and heritage of Yerucham. Atid Bamidbar can coordinate everything from robotics workshops at the Science Center to sessions with local residents who have diverse ethnic histories and visits to the neighboring unrecognized village of Rachma to be hosted in a Bedouin tent or to see their joint ‘urban farm’ project with Yerucham.

Workshop for children on the use of lights and filmmaking, led by Suit-Case Studio during the Hanukah holiday, 2018 at the Pais Lab -Yeruham Design Terminal (Courtesy of Hadar Mamrud, founding director of the Terminal).
A visit to the “Culinary Queens of Yerucham” in November 2017, the Greater Miami Federation ‘Fall in Love with Israel’ mission to Israel (Courtesy of the Federation).

Visitors to Yerucham can easily find lists of local guides for nature tours, workshops at the Yerucham Design Terminal, bike riding adventures and eco-tourism projects such as the Yerucham Center of Ecology and Ornithology. And back at the Desert Iris Hotel, the staff will be the first ones to recommend the “Culinary Queens of Yerucham” for a real local culinary experience over its own dining options.

The “Culinary Queens of Yerucham” is a project initiated by Atid Bamidbar back in 2002. Built on the principles of community-based tourism, the project trains women aged 50-75 from diverse ethnic groups to host visiting groups.  This effort has proven its tourist appeal and has provided a welcome income for women who mostly have never worked outside their home. These “Culinary Queens” have the opportunity to share their distinct family and ethnic culinary traditions with visitors, numbering so far, on average,10,000 a year from both Israel and abroad.

As part of the social business model of “Culinary Queens of Yeruham”, Atid Bamidbar and the New Yerucham Fund published cookbook in 2010, written in English and Hebrew. (Courtesy of Atid Bamidbar).

And the stories that the visitors get to hear are as wonderful as the food. As one of the of the first development towns established in the early 1950s, Yerucham began as a transit camp for new immigrants coming from Romania, North Africa, India and Iran. Geographically isolated for decades, the town had suffered over the years from economic stagnation and limited opportunities for social mobility. Yet in addition to the history of hardship, there is another narrative that the women tell, and that is the story of resilience and their many efforts to create a better life for subsequent generations.

The cookbook, “Flavors and Delights of Yerucham” in English, includes, along with recipes, photographs of local sites and residents, and the personal stories of the Culinary Queens. (Courtesy of Atid Bamidbar).

In the end, the real ‘takeaways’ from tourist activities are the stories you’ll remember, the people you’ll meet and the memories you’ll cherish.  The home hospitality of the “Culinary Queens of Yerucham” is just one of the many opportunities for meaningful interaction. Since its establishment in 1990, Atid Bamidbar has been gathering stories from residents and is continually finding creative ways to preserve and celebrate their diversity. It founded a communal archive, and is now working with the Yerucham municipality to establish a ‘Heritage House’, as part of nationwide project initiated by the Ministry of Culture in 2018 to showcase the history of development towns around the country.

A group of visitors at the outdoor museum installation, the site of the ‘maabara’ transit camp that marks the beginning of modern Yerucham in 1951. Dedicated in June 2018 (Courtesy of Atid Bamidbar).

There are still many challenges to overcome in Yerucham. But you can also sense how the efforts to strengthen the community and expand its tourist potential are taking root, helping to promote a sense of civic pride. There is a vibrancy and vitality to the myriad of collaborations between private and public sectors, and the Miami-Yerucham partnership serves to boost many of these initiatives. These collective efforts are together putting Yerucham on the map for all of the right reasons.

About the Author
Dr. Nancy Strichman teaches graduate courses in evaluation and strategic thinking at the Hebrew University’s Glocal program, a masters degree in International Development. Her research has focused on civil society, specifically on shared society NGOs and gender equality in Israel. She lives in Tivon, Israel with her four children and her very patient husband.
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