In Sudan, elephants are a symbol of national identity and a source of pride. ©Pat Marron

Winter, along with the start of a brand-new year, tends to put us in a reflective mood. I guess that’s why the January issues of many magazines are now full of “best of” lists for last year. In the tourism industry, they tend to run something like this: best new tours of 2010, best adventure tours of 2010, best adventure movies of 2010, best outdoor gear of 2010 or best adventure job of 2010.

My pick for the latter category wouldn’t be the usual one of tour guide or mountain climber. It’s the job of Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, who is now a special envoy to the Middle East.

Tourism, prosperity, peace

Talk about having an adventurous job. Unequivocally, Tony Blair has one of the toughest in the world. He was appointed by the Middle East Quartet (the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia) to work toward a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by bolstering the Palestinian economy. Blair believes that if Israelis and Palestinians work together to exploit their common potential—their many historical sites, which are ripe for tourism—peace could be built in the region.

Tourism can be a powerful force for peace in places of natural beauty. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

On the Jordanian side of the Jordan River, Moses is said to have looked out over the Promised Land. At dusk, you can see the lights of Jerusalem from the same spot. Masada, a fortress-palace that was built by a Judean king in the late second century BC, is located on a high plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. In the first century BC, King Herod embellished it. There’s Jericho (also called Tell es-Sultan), which is situated on an ancient lakebed plain in the West Bank, Palestine. In fact, there are probably more sites of antiquity in this area than in any other part of the world.

However, visitors and tourist guides, both Israeli and Palestinian, need to feel that they are able to travel about freely and safely. Blair thinks that if local people start to understand that tourism will bring their communities a measure of economic prosperity, they will have a self-interest in peace.

The elephants are back

There are precedents for Blair’s tourism-promotes-peace idea. For example, Sudan suffered Africa’s longest and bloodiest conflict, according to an article posted by the International Conservation and Education Fund in November 2008. The 22-year, north-south civil war killed almost two million people. It also drove out large numbers of animals.

You can’t help but feel a kinship when you come face-to-face with the people and wildlife of an area. ©Pat Marron

After two years of relative peace, however, the wildlife returned. A recent aerial survey conducted by the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society estimated that herds of antelope and gazelle are now at 1.3 million—an astronomical number considering the animals were thought to have left the Sudan forever.

Seven thousand elephants are back, as well. Their reappearance is one of the greatest symbols of southern Sudanese hopes for peace—elephants are a symbol of national identity and a source of pride. Sudanese officials are now hoping that tourism will help fund their cash-strapped state. The government plans to open safari lodges and to reopen a dozen national parks and game reserves throughout south Sudan, a vast, wild, subtropical region nearly the size of France.

Some think that tourism and peace are inseparable and must be born together; some believe that tourism comes only after peace has arrived. I’m not sure of the timing, but I do know that tourism is a powerful force, changing situations that formal negotiations in big rooms with round tables often fail to do. You can’t help but feel a kinship—for a little while at least—when you’re on the ground, coming face-to-face and hiking the same paths with the people and wildlife that live in a particular area.

So, Tony Blair, you have my vote for having the Most Adventurous Job of 2010. For what could be more adventurous than trying to bring peace—through tourism—to a troubled place on the planet?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,