By Alanna Berman
Israel tour guide Erez Strasburg likes to say there is “a story behind every door.” In other words, each of the native Israeli’s clients touring his home country has their own personal history and interests that can uniquely shape their travel experience. For Strasburg, learning about his clients’ passions and interests is as important to his business as a map.
Personal tourism, as Strasburg calls it, intertwines the major historical and cultural landmarks common on any Israel tour with stops at sites that speak to his clients’ interests. So although he always incorporates places like Masada, Jerusalem and the Dead Sea into his clients’ itineraries, he likes to make sure they don’t experience a “cookie cutter” vacation.
“Getting to know Israel outside of the mainstream tours and fostering that personal connection to Israel is what brought me to personal tourism,” he says.
San Diegans may remember Strasburg as the Jewish Federation of San Diego County’s shaliach from 2002-05, during which time he began thinking about personalized tours of his home country as a way to bridge the gap between Jews of the Diaspora and those of Israel, he says.
“In America, they study the history of Israel according to the wars,” he explains. “[When you ask someone] about the history of Israel, the answer is 1948, or 1967 or 1982. I want to show the real Israel, through a person’s passions and what they are interested in. By connecting people to their history [here], and showing them how they are connected to Israel today, it bridges the gap [between us].”
While that task may seem daunting, considering the many different personalities and interests Strasburg inherently encounters in his clients, he says he calls upon his skills as an interviewer to really get to know someone before their arrival in Israel.
“In any business, you really need to know your customers,” he says, “but in my case, I need to listen to people to find the Israel that is in their heart. I call the customers and stay on the phone for a long time before I really understand who they are, what their history is and what their passion is.”
He then gets to work planning day trips and outings for tour groups, and no two tours are ever the same. From private culinary experiences in locals’ homes and yoga in the desert to photography excursions and bar mitzvah groups, Strasburg specializes in matching his clients’ itineraries to their unique interests.
“The thing I love the most is taking bar mitzvah groups on tours, because there is so much heritage in the ritual itself, and I really learn the story of the family,” he says, “[While] I can match any group’s interest, you really have to be creative sometimes, and that is one of the strengths I have as a tour guide.”
No group is too large or too small for a personal tour of Israel, and Strasburg welcomes all ages and interests. While Strasburg says he invests a lot of time and research into his clients’ tours, he also employs other tour guides whose expertise differs from his own to be sure he can give all visitors to Israel the most customized experience possible.
“The best way for tourists to understand, connect and enjoy Israel is by immersing themselves in the culture,” he says, “and what better way to do that than with Israelis that share similar interests. By connecting one on one with Israelis, by going to a private home…or off the beaten path, visitors can find connections that they otherwise wouldn’t have, and in this way, we continue to build bridges between people and places.”
Erez Strasburg, Tour Guide