Itay Asaf, far left, with a group he led on a tour of Jaffa, where they visited the areas in which his dad grew up. This particular group was in Israel for eight days. (photo from Itay Asaf)
Esperanso is a recently established, socially responsible tourism company based in the United States that offers private tours to Israel. Created by Itay Asaf and his brother, Eyal, who are both are former kibbutzniks, the tours include a volunteering component.
“I led Birthright trips to Israel,” Itay Asaf told the Independent. “And I realized the trips are really nice and very fun for the students, but there was something missing for me, as an educator. I felt like the students are not really getting the true face of Israel, and they’re not really given the chance to give back.
“I wanted them to be very involved socially and to see sites they don’t usually get to see on trips. I found a social justice extension trip where I took the students, and I used tourism as a tool to empower local communities in south Tel Aviv, refugees and LGBTQ [for example]. And then I saw the impact and what it does for the students. Some even came back to Israel, and some are considering making aliyah.”
At that point, Eyal had a tourism company in Israel, so, together, the brothers built the concept for Esperanso. The name of the company reflects their family heritage – coming from Turkey and having a Spanish name – and it is a play on the word esperanza, meaning hope.
“One of the reasons I wanted to combine social work and social justice in everything I did, is my aunt,” said Itay. “She grew up in a village for people with special needs, Kfar Tikva. My brother and I wanted to take the experience we had with tourism and growing up with my aunt, and I saw the potential of the tourists that already come to Israel. We approach [them] and we say, ‘We welcome everyone. We accept groups. We accept youth. We invite people to celebrate bar mitzvahs.’ But, what we add is, ‘When you travel with us, you are actually empowering communities.’
“We took social organizations that we were personally connected to and we combined them into the itineraries with each of our trips,” he explained. “Not only do you support them by the activities during your trip, we also promise the organizations that five percent of the cost of your trip will go to one of them; that we will donate, based on your choice. This way, we ensure those organizations are empowered, socially and economically. We can take any trip you desire to do in Israel and make it into a socially responsible one.”
Esperanso connects with the various organizations ahead of time, with the goal of having participants get an inside view. The Asafs’ hope is that some visitors will make a deeper connection with the organizations and create partnerships, or set up longer-term volunteering with them.
“There are a variety of organizations just waiting for tourists to come and see what they do and support them,” said Itay. “That’s our pleasure – connecting and introducing you to those organizations.
“When I started,” he said, “I had a student who, two months after the trip, came to me and said she is going back to Israel to volunteer for a year. I almost cried I was so happy. This is what I wanted. It’s amazing to see. She was attached to it and she saw what she could do.”
The groups Esperanso leads vary in size, but, most important for Itay is connecting with interesting people and finding ways to create the trip they want together. So far, he has been on all the trips as the guide, but that might change. Depending on volume and availability, his brother might step in and guide some tours. As his brother lives in Israel, Eyal is the one taking care of everything on the ground until Itay lands with the group.
“We are very competitive cost-wise in the market,” said Itay. “We are aware that part of what we are making is going to these organizations, and we are completely, honestly, OK with that, happy with that.
“I’d say, if someone wants to go to Israel and do the journey with the hotels, the bus and everything, I think we are offering a very competitive package. They can just contact us, come to Israel and have everything ready for them in a socially responsible approach.”
The Asafs see Esperanso as something more than just a tourism company. For them, it is part of the future, of the new economy.
“I think we should support companies and organizations that care about the surroundings,” said Itay. “I think that, if everyone would care a little bit more, we could find ways to also profit the communities around us. If we make the right connections, we can change the world…. I urge everyone to look for ways to direct your money just a little bit to help people in need.”
For more information, visit esperanso.com.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.