Tackling a myriad of challenges including cross border issues and escalating internal conflicts, the Middle East seems like the last place for serious integration – economic or otherwise. So, a long-distance walking trail across the region seems like an inconceivable notion. Even if it would exist, surely none would want to walk it. Not so, it appears.
Abraham's Path is a form of cultural tourism, which follows the footsteps of Abraham across the Middle East. The current Path spans 310 miles but it may eventually cross 3,100 miles and ten countries in the Middle East. Abraham’s Path Initiative is uncovering the footsteps of Abraham starting from the birth place of Abraham in Urfa, Turkey and ending at his burial site in Hebron, Palestine.
The idea has caught on. Since 2008, some 3,500 travelers have walked the Path, majority of them passing 21 rural communities and villages in Jordan and Palestine. Walkers enjoy homestays with local families, homemade meals, and walks through attractive natural and archeological spots in historic Middle Eastern communities.
Abraham’s Path introduces a creative “alternative” model for rural tourism that supports population at the bottom of the pyramid and in conflict environments. Its impact is mostly felt in areas that are otherwise excluded from mainstream tourism: under-privileged rural communities with little infrastructure. Women are the main beneficiaries, being in charge of communities and homestays and hospitality along the way. Men mostly do the guiding on the Path, but that too is changing in some countries. As local youth practice foreign languages with walkers, they are placing their foot in the tourism industry earlier in their career.
The idea seems to follow an increasing trend in global tourism: international travelers are seeking “meaningful” trips to places where few have gone before. They are looking for authentic and unique experiences that do not entail traditional luxury and comfort, but which pushes them outside their comfort zone. These travelers are also seeking higher ethical standards on nature conservation and see themselves not so much as “consumers'” of itineraries or “package”, but as contributors to new ideas, encounters and way of traveling. Exploring small villages and towns, normally ignored by mainstream tourism, is becoming part of that meaningful travel they seek.
Long distance walking is one of the sub-sectors in international tourism that attracts a high percentage of these travelers. Today, over 170,000 people are walking the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain every year. That number was barely a thousand twenty years ago. As long-distance walking has spread from Europe and the Americas to Asia and Africa, one region has remained the last frontier for walkers, until now: the Middle East. That is changing over the last few years with small and larger trails being developed and new guide books covering long-distance walking in Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. Abraham's Path Initiative wants to take this to the next level by creating the first long-distance walking trail across the entire Middle East.
Since 2008, nearly 250 miles of trail has been uncovered in Palestine, featuring local hospitality, guiding and lodging along the way. The Palestinian extension of the Path passes 13 communities and villages in areas A, B and C in the Palestinian West Bank.
Looking at the success of this initiative, one wonders what the economic and social potential could be if this initiative is taken “to scale.” What effect a long-distance trail can have on environmental and heritage preservation or whether a walking path could be a starting point for greater, cross-border integration and cooperation in the future. It remains to be seen.
Abraham's Path Initiative is a global nongovernmental organization, working in Urfa, Amman, Bethlehem, Cambridge (MA), Jerusalem, London, Rotterdam, and Sao Paulo, whose mission is to facilitate travel along Abraham's Path. Founded at Harvard University's Global Negotiation Initiative, Abraham's Path Initiative is endorsed and assisted by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and the UN World Tourism Organization. Abraham's Path Initiative is a non-profit, non-political, non-sectarian organization honoring all cultures and faiths.