5 Takeaways From Aziz Abu Sarah’s Remarkable Venue Awards Keynote Speech

Joslyn McIntyre

January 4, 2022

In a year when the tourism industry had a lot of challenges to overcome – and a lot of hope to offer – some profound insights emerged. At Tiqets’ second global annual Remarkable Venue Awards, keynote speaker Aziz Abu Sarah shared some of his biggest takeaways from the post-pandemic-shutdown stage of travel, and predictions for what’s in store for 2022. Abu Sarah is a cultural educator, TED Fellow, and National Geographic Explorer, and his keynote speech kicked off Tiqets’ annual tourism awards celebrating the best museums and attractions around the world.

Aziz Abu Sarah had a lot to say about why people travel and what it means to, well, humanity. This may sound dramatic, but without the ability to see new places and experience new things, it’s harder to hold on to hope. He believes the return of travel post-COVID has the power to help heal divides and increase tolerance, and museums and attractions can play a role in making the world a more peaceful place.

If your job is to attract people to a museum or attraction anywhere in the world, read on for five takeaways and endless inspiration from Abu Sarah.

Aziz Abu Sarah

Aziz Abu Sarah is a cultural educator, TED Fellow and National Geographic Explorer whose TED Talk, “For more tolerance, we need more… tourism?” has been viewed more than 1.5 million times. His keynote speech “Reimagining Travel: The Power of Tourism to Create a More Peaceful World shared why he believes the return of travel post-COVID has the power to help heal divides and increase tolerance — and how museums and attractions can play a role in making the world a more peaceful place.   

Takeaway 1: People will always find ways to travel

“We all have a curiosity, a feeling when we embark on a journey,” says Abu Sarah. “When we travel, we wonder, what are the sites I can see? The stories I haven’t heard? That’s what exploration is, and it exists in each one of us. And it’s why the travel industry exists.”

Indeed, the urge to travel and meet people is unstoppable, and Abu Sarah has had first-hand experiences of its transformative power. He tells the story of his return to his homeland of Jerusalem as one of the first travelers allowed back in when the super-strict city finally welcomed visitors again.

Entering Jerusalem required plenty of tests and paperwork in pandemic times, and despite the risks and hassles, people were lined up to come into the country. Abu Sarah says, “That gives me hope that it’s going to be an amazing year. People are going to get out and travel more and more.”

View from an airlpane window

Takeaway 2: Virtual travel is a placeholder

At the same time, he notes, in a sense, travel never really stopped. Even when people couldn’t get out of their homes or on airplanes, they began to embark on virtual adventures. In fact, we all became overnight experts on technologies like Zoom. That’s how strong the drive to travel is. 

When it was all we had, virtual travel was a spirit-saver. But it only made us want to travel more. Still, a lot of travel brands climbed a steep technology curve in 2020 and 2021, and there’s no reason to throw all that knowledge and capability away when “real travel” returns in full force. Instead, virtual options should supplement your in-person experiences and serve as previews to the types of experiences people will have on-site. 

Takeaway 3: We should all stop overlooking local travel

Another enormous takeaway for museums and attractions that Abu Sarah made sure to mention is the importance of courting a local audience. His philosophy is that “Travel, after all, is not about distance, it’s a state of mind,” and never has this been proven more true than in the last few years. 

When they couldn’t hop on a plane or train or cross borders, people started paying more attention to local tourism options, finding museums, national parks, hikes, and cultural venues they’d never known about, often in their own neighborhoods or just across town. Travelers who used to fly thousands of miles to visit world-renowned museums suddenly discovered incredible alternatives right in their own backyards.

Even as domestic and international travel takes off again, the travel industry has perhaps learned a valuable lesson: not to ignore the rich local audience in your own backyard.

Takeaway 4: At heart, travel is an act of diplomacy

“Even though we’re all connected by the internet, we live in echo chambers. Travel gets us out of our comfort zones and enables us to see things we might not always be comfortable seeing in our own home. But when we travel, we’re willing to see them.”

 –  Aziz Abu Sarah

When Abu Sarah visited Jerusalem, it was a profound experience for him, not just because he was returning to his homeland. Having grown up Palestinian in a conflict-laden region, he says, “I saw the other as the enemy. For 18 years, I didn’t even know my [Jewish] neighbors.” Then, he had an opportunity to visit his Israeli neighbors for the first time  –  less than a kilometer away, but in terms of ideology, another planet. “It was the most powerful trip I’ve taken,” he says. “I learned things I had ever known.” 

Because he didn’t speak much Hebrew, his conversational options were limited, but he found a kinship with Israeli kids when talking about things like music and coffee. In fact, he met an Israeli neighbor who improbably liked the same music as him: Western country. He reflects, “What other industry do you know that tears down separation and a lack of communication like the travel industry?”

We often think of travel as an opportunity for fun and adventure, but it can also be an act of peacemaking. As a scholar of conflict resolution and someone with a background in peacemaking efforts around the world, from Syria to Afghanistan to Chile, Abu Sarah particularly loves this lesson, and says, “What I’ve found is that meeting the other, connecting with those you don’t know, changes the world. No industry has the power to do that like travel. We might not realize it, but we in the travel industry are all diplomats.”

Takeaway 5: Travel makes us see things differently

“Travel makes you speechless but then turns you into a storyteller.” 

–  Ibn Battuta (an ancient Arab traveler)

Travel does have a tendency to make people see things differently. One last story Abu Sarah shared on this subject: His father, a Palestinian from Jerusalem, had never been to a synagogue in his life, but when visiting the United States, accidentally ended up in one for a prayer service. As it turns out, he had an incredible experience. “Muslims and Jews get along here!” he testified. “We all have something to learn.”

So the last key point Abu Sarah made in his address is that travel is an opportunity for us to correct our misconceptions about the destinations we visit. It’s a cultural exploration, a search for missing stories. When you travel, you get to learn how to connect as humans, together, and experience the diversity within civilizations. And that makes the world small, after all. 


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