(Posted 07th June 2016)
The increasing relevance of religious and cultural tourism and the opportunities it offers to link the countries in the Mediterranean was the focus of a series of events on ‘Connecting People and Cultures through Tourism in the Mediterranean region.’ The events held in Maghdouche and Beirut, were organized by UNWTO and the Ministry of Tourism of Lebanon.
The first event – a round table on religious tourism, with the participation of CNN’s John Defterious – explored the challenges and opportunities for the development of religious tourism routes in the Levant as well as cross-country pilgrimages and networks of religious tourism destinations as effective means to foster regional development and integration, cross-cultural exchanges, understanding and self-education and learning.
‘Never before have so many people visited so many places and seen so many diverse cultures, traditions and faiths. Religious tourism can in fact be one of the most effective tools to foster mutual understanding and sustainable development‘ said UNWTO Secretary-General, Dr. Taleb Rifai opening the roundtable.
The meeting, held in Maghdouche, was followed by a ceremony organized by the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism marking the launch of ‘our Lady of Mantara’ as a destination for international religious tourism.
The second day was dedicated to the meeting of the Working Group of the Phoenicians´ Route Cultural Tourism Programme.
Michel Pharaon, Minister of Tourism of Lebanon, said ‘the Phoenician Route has cultural, humanitarian and tourism benefits, for Lebanon and 17 other Mediterranean and European Union countries while fitting UNWTO’s objectives, which has adopted this vital regional project‘.
‘The Phoenician route is widely recognized not only as a historical cultural and trade-based itinerary, but also as an initiative to interconnect all the diverse backgrounds existing in the region since ancient times. We are upon an unprecedented occasion to revive the identity of the Mediterranean and its tourism sector so that all societies in the region can capitalize the immense opportunities that it brings to 18 participating countries and tourism destinations across more than 2800 kilometers in terms of economic development and job creation‘ added Dr. Rifai.
The events counted with the participation of the Ministries of Tourism of Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt and international organizations such as UNESCO and ASCAME. The Council of Europe was represented by Stefano Dominioni, Director of the European Institute of Cultural Routes (EICR) and Executive Secretary of the Enlarged Partial Agreement (EPA) on Cultural Routes of the Council of Europe who expressed the full cooperation of the Council to the development of the Phoenicians´ Route as a cultural tourism programme.
The meeting concluded with the four key areas of focus as next steps: 1) the development of itineraries, 2) involving local communities, 3) joint marketing and promotion, and 4) travel facilitation.
The Phoenicians´ Route Cultural Tourism Programme provides a valuable opportunity to build upon the existing cultural route and facilitate the development of a strategic plan for tourism itineraries, engaging stakeholders in the region and encouraging the alignment of resources and funds for tourism product development, capital projects, visitor experiences, marketing and promotion.
The findings of the meeting will be of particular interest to pilgrimage destinations in Eastern Africa, namely Rwanda and Uganda. Rwanda has a Catholic shrine and pilgrimage site at Kibeho while in Uganda two shrines invite pilgrims to come throughout the year to visit the memorial sites for Catholic martyrs in Namugongo and Munyonyo.
There has been a strong push for the private sector to develop year round pilgrimage packages in particular for travelers from West Africa to East Africa although pilgrims from around the world will no doubt be welcome to combine a classic safari with a religious element.