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Circassian town in northern Israel wins UN recognition as global ‘tourist village’

Kfar Kama, in lower Galilee, is one of only two Circassian communities in Israel; award ceremony set for February in Saudi Arabia

The entrance to the Circassian village of Kfar Kama with an inscription in Hebrew and Circassian saying 'welcome' December 2020. (svarshik via iStock by Getty Images)
The entrance to the Circassian village of Kfar Kama with an inscription in Hebrew and Circassian saying 'welcome' December 2020. (svarshik via iStock by Getty Images)

The Circassian town of Kfar Kama in northern Israel was selected as an international “tourist village” by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) for its second annual round-up of global rural communities leveraging tourism to drive economic growth while safeguarding local tradition and culture.

The town was named among 32 villages from 18 countries including Morocco, Italy, Jordan, Mexico, Peru and Saudi Arabia, for the UNWTO’s 2022 list, announced on Tuesday.

These towns will join 63 villages selected last year for the inaugural list and will be part of the UNWTO Best Tourism Villages Global Network, a program that provides tourism training in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for selected villages and international brand recognition as recommended destinations.

Kfar Kama, located in the lower Galilee along the route between Mount Sabor and the Sea of Galilee, is one of only two Circassian settlements in Israel, and home to an over 150-year-old, Arabic-speaking minority in the Jewish state.

Its residents, along with those from the Circassian town of Rehaniya, north of Safed, are descendants of Circassian tribes from the North Caucasus region, bordering on the Black Sea. They were settled in the Galilee region in the late 1870s by the Ottoman Empire following the mass murder and expulsion of Circassians during the roughly 100-year Russo-Circassian War.

Numbering around 5,000, a majority of Circassians in Israel are Muslim. Male members of the close-knit community are one of two minority groups to serve in the Israeli military (the other being Druze).

Israel’s Tourism Ministry has backed a series of renovations in Kfar Kama over the years to help preserve its heritage and to help draw tourists in greater numbers.

The village is home to a museum of Circassian culture, and local authorities have worked to preserve its original and distinctive architecture throughout. Archaeological digs in the area have uncovered remains from much earlier Christian settlers, including a 1,300-year-old church.

Tourist attractions in the village include guided tours, a cheese-making workshop, restaurants offering the community’s unique cuisine, and a night-time sound-and-light show for visitors.

The Circassian heritage center in the Circassian village of Kfar Kama in northern Israel, December 2020. (svarshik via iStock by Getty Images)

Outgoing Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov said he hoped the UNWTO recognition will help Kfar Kama “become a center for pilgrimage by many tourists and will have an important positive impact on the rural surroundings in the Galilee.”

“The international recognition is expected to generate an increase in tourism and development of the rural space, especially in the vicinity of the winning village,” the Tourism Ministry said in a statement.

The UNWTO said 136 villages in total were put forward for consideration by member states and those selected were evaluated by an independent advisory board based on a set of criteria that covered factors such as cultural and natural resources, health and safety, and environmental sustainability.

In addition, the UN body also selected 20 villages, including Kibbutz Neot Smadar in the Arava Desert in southern Israel, for the Best Tourism Villages by UNWTO Upgrade Program, an initiative for towns that don’t fully meet the criteria for recognition but will receive support to improve eligibility for future nomination.

Israel’s Tourism Ministry said it also filed a nomination for Tzippori, a moshav in the Jezreel Valley adjacent to the celebrated national park of the same name.

Members of the Circassian community in Kfar Kama wearing traditional clothes, November 2007. (By Andy, Public Domain, Wikimedia)

An award ceremony for the winning villages is set to take place in February in Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia — also on the list. The Tourism Ministry said representatives from Kfar Kama and from its offices were invited to the event. Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, though ties have warmed in recent years.

Kfar Kama is the first Israeli city to be recognized in the UNWTO program, focusing on villages with fewer than 15,000 inhabitants.

Israel is also home to 10 UN world heritage sites: Masada, the Old City of Acre, the Bahai Temples in Haifa, the biblical “Tels” of Megiddo, Hazor and Beersheba, the caves of Maresha and Bet Guvrin, the four Nabatean towns of Haluza, Mamshit, Avdat and Shivta in the Negev, the Necropolis of Bet She’arim, the Nahal Me’arot at Mount Carmel, the White City in Tel Aviv, and the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls.

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