On the island of Zanzibar in 2009, a young Dutchman was inspired to take a unique approach to deaf tourism. Jos Wesemann was there with his father, a man with a long history working on deaf issues in the Netherlands and around the world. And while Jos was well travelled, this was his first experience of being immersed in a local Deaf community abroad.
Everywhere he went he was amazed by his experiences and by how easily deaf people from Holland and from Tanzania found it to communicate with one another. “For hearing people language is always a barrier,” he explains, “So that unless I spoke Swahili I would have struggled to communicate with them. But for the Deaf community, sign language – while locally adapted – is a universal language, and so there was automatically a kinship and connection.”
Jos is well positioned to understand this dynamics. His entire family is deaf: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. On his father’s side the deafness goes back 3 generations. Only he and his two brothers are not. This means he grew up surrounded by deaf people, learning to communicate with sign language as naturally as with his voice.
Towards the end of his trip he traveled inland with one of the local deaf people. As he did he realised their network stretched out through the whole country. “They gave me such a unique and authentic deaf tourism experience that I thought together we could do it for other people too.”
And so, returning from Tanzania, he set up his travel company focussed on deaf tourism, Wesemann Travel. “There are some groups offering deaf tourism,” he says. “But we wanted to create something no one had done before… a company where all the people involved, from the guides to the hosts, to the people you encounter: are deaf, or directly associated with the deaf world”.
Deaf or deaf?
There are two kinds of deaf, explains Jos. When it is written with a little ‘d’, it refers to the inability to hear. But with capital ‘D’, it refers to Deaf culture. And it is a culture, like many others, with its own symbols, rituals and heritage. “We are simply a tour company that makes it possible for people to discover this culture,” says Jos.
Here again, Wesemann Travel is unusual. For while they offer tours to visit Deaf communities, they do not market them only to the Deaf market. In fact, 20 per cent of their guests can hear. But whether they can hear or not, Jos is adamant that his company is not offering ‘worthy development tours’, but rather fascinating holidays of discovery, where the culture you are discovering is Deaf.
They may make sure their holidays are fun, but they are also committed to supporting the destinations where they work. Having started in Tanzania, they have helped a group of deaf ladies buy sewing machines and set up a business making and selling clothes, and arranged for hundreds of special schoolbooks for deaf children to be transported from the Netherlands to Tanzania.They have helped a deaf man open a restaurant staffed by deaf people. And they have even helped set up a local tour company in Zanzibar, run entirely by local the Deaf community.
And as fast as Jos can scale, they are expanding their destinations. This year they are taking a group of deaf people across Russia to Mongolia, travelling on the Trans-Siberian and visiting a Deaf factory in Siberia along the way. And most fascinatingly, this July they are running their first trip to Israel and Palestine. A group of 25 people will be going to places including Jerusalem, Ramallah and Tel Aviv, where they will meet with deaf Arabs, a deaf rabbi, deaf ultra-orthodox Jews and deaf Bedouins.
But first and foremost, the trip is a holiday. “We also found a deaf surf champion who will give surfing workshops to my group,” adds Jos. “Because of course we are going to relax on the beach too.”