Tolerance Through Tourism

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Ten years ago, two young men from traditionally-opposing backgrounds shared a common passion: Peacebuilding. Today their Wellington, Florida-based B-Corp, MEJDI Tours, takes people to historically conflict-riddled areas and other destinations across the globe, providing unique perspectives that raise awareness, tolerance, and human dignity. Their original approach has been featured in a popular TED Talk and has led to a coveted contract with National Geographic Expeditions. We sat down with co-founder & CEO Scott Cooper to learn more about this unusual enterprise…

Q: How did MEJDI Tours get started?

I’m American Jewish. My co-founder [Aziz Abu Sarah] is a Palestinian from Jerusalem. The two of us met about 10 years ago, both doing international peacebuilding and development work. Aziz did some really amazing work in Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians. He was working with bereaved families, Israeli and Palestinian, who had all lost family members to the conflict, in working for reconciliation in our societies.

He ended up moving to Washington DC, where I was doing a master’s degree in Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution with a focus on Arab-Jewish peacebuilding efforts. We ended up getting connected.

In our conversations, I found that Aziz did a little bit of Holy Land tourism work on the side to make ends meet. Because many of us in the nonprofit and international development work know that we can do all this social change, but usually it’s not sustainable financially. He was doing this on the side. I was actually working in banking and financial planning, so we had very different backgrounds.

We were brainstorming one day and we thought to ourselves, “What about tourism and travel? What better way to shatter stereotypes and create social change than to connect networks of people across borders, real and imaginary.” That’s essentially what’s happening when you travel.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, a billion and a half people travel each year. We looked at that statistic and thought to ourselves, “Well that’s an opportunity. A billion and a half people are traveling every year, we’re doing peace building work… Why don’t we do this a little bit differently? I wonder if we can combine peacebuilding with travel.”

We started looking into it and we noticed that a lot of the people that were doing it would have a very focused effort in what’s called alternative travel, or volunteer tourism. We thought those were fantastic, but one thing that we knew from our backgrounds in social change and peacebuilding work was that that keeps the networks a bit small. We thought to ourselves, “What could we do on a larger scale eventually? Let’s just try and tweak the tourism model a little bit.”

We knew a bunch of Israelis and Palestinians that were friends with each other and we said, “Let’s talk to our friends in universities, churches, synagogues and say, ‘Bring your group to Israel, Palestine, the Holy Land, and we’re going to do it a little differently. We’re going to let you see the sights, we’re going to let you try the food, all this kind of fun stuff that you want to do—but throughout your tour it’s going to be led by an Israeli and Palestinian together. They might disagree on things, but at the end of the day they are friends.'” That’s how we started. We had a small network of pastors, and university professors, and rabbis that were interested in this idea and it really took off from there.

Eventually National Geographic got wind and we ended up becoming National Geographic’s sole provider of Holy Land expeditions, so when folks sign up with National Geographic they travel with us. That’s really an interesting thing from a peacebuilding perspective because through National Geographic, we reach millions of people every year, and the first thing that they see next to the Holy Land expedition is something designed by Arabs and Jews and peacebuilding efforts.

Q: How did you come up with that name?

The name MEJDI means “to honor” in Arabic. The idea of MEJDI Tours is to honor the local people, honor the local culture, and MEJDI was just the way to say that in Arabic.

Q What is the company’s higher purpose?

It’s quite an audacious goal, but we’re trying to create a better world through travel. That’s our higher purpose, and we see that materializing in every destination globally, from our local communities to the Holy Land.

We’ve done trips in Ireland and Northern Ireland. We’ve done trips in Turkey, in Egypt. We were in Syria before the war. We’ve worked in Afghanistan. We’ve taken trips to the Balkans. We’ve translated the model into different destinations, and translated how tourism can number one, meet the needs of the group, but also honor the local community.

In Israel, in Palestine, the Holy Land—that was conducted with two tour guides, Israeli and Palestinian. In some other places it’s really focusing on communities that are less focused on by other tours. We also intentionally try to work with small businesses and family-owned hotels. We try to infuse social change-makers and agents across the tourism supply chain.

We also try very hard to create programs for all types of travelers since this is why we thought ‘alternative travel’ options don’t reach enough people. So for example, a luxury traveler might want to be on the beach one day and have a spa, but then the next day, they can listen to folks in a refugee camp, and then the next day they can see kids working together in a school doing something else. We just try and mix all these things together based on our client needs and goals, so we feel like these values-based items can be infused in any type of trip. Whether it’s just a little bit, or if it’s the whole trip, you feel like every opportunity when you travel can leave a better impact. We feel all travelers – adventure, religious, luxury, educational – are interested in socially conscious travel and one of our strategic objectives is to provide travel options for them.

Q: Describe your company’s culture and how you go about crafting that culture.

We think about everybody working within MEJDI, both full time staff and contractors, and our clients, as friends. When you’re hanging out with your friends you want to have a good time. You want to be respectful. You want to have an environment that you’re enjoying and they’re enjoying. I do my best to make it fun, to tell jokes, to have that informal feel to it.

At the same time, since what we’re doing is a very serious thing, both in terms of social change and customer service, [I try] to also create the culture that we work as hard as we can.

We treat each other the way we like to be treated. We treat our customers and our partners and our stakeholders the way we would like to be treated. It’s fun. It’s hardworking.

In addition to that, I like to create a culture in which the folks working within and in partnership with MEJDI feel empowered to make decisions, because I think that’s critically important. For example, if there’s a major decision that needs to happen, say in an Israeli or a Palestinian city, I don’t want to make that decision. I want my local partners to make those decisions. And this comes from the peacebuilding point of view.

Q: How can people get in touch with you?

People can feel free to email me. Also, if they live in South Florida and want to get involved, we’re looking for interns from local tourism and business schools, but all are welcome!

Listen here to the full audio interview with Scott Cooper.