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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Strolling with shepherds and olive-picking picnics: an eco-tourism experience in Northern Cyprus

In the tiny village of Büyükkonuk in Northern (Turkish-speaking) Cyprus, we recently got to hang out in a paddock with a shepherd and his sheep, clamber through perfumed bushland to collect wild herbs (thyme, oreganos, sage, myrtle, and fennel), and learn how to make local feta and olive bread with the village baker. In the cosy sandstone home of our hosts, Ismael and Lois Cemal, we warmed ourselves by a pot-bellied stove and ate a delicious dinner of baked rabbit with vegetables, both from their own garden. The couple are the architects of a project that has established eco-tourism in Northern Cyprus and turned little Büyükkonuk into the area's first eco-village. Driven by a desire not to see Northern Cyprus go the way of the South with its ugly mass tourism development, and disappointed by the readiness with which their compatriots are selling their farms to developers, Lois and Ismael devised a plan. First they turned part of their property into a B&B, providing simple accommodation in a traditional stone house. Next they trained as tour guides and offered a range of activities intended to give people a taste of life in a working village, from donkey treks through the countryside to olive picking 'tours' followed by picnics in the groves. After winning a scholarship at the University of Turin to develop the project further, Ismael set about bringing the rest of his community on board. He encouraged his neighbors to rebuild their crumbling stone houses, transforming them into B&Bs, and applied for funds to reconstruct historic town buildings for community use, like the restoration of an old olive press and the creation of a public square, which Ismael is overseeing. The hope is that if the villagers can see how they can make a living carrying on the traditional way of life they have for centuries then they won't sell out to big business and their village life won't disappear. A stay at Büyükkonuk is a must if you're the kind of traveller seeking more authentic experiences and the opportunity to participate in the everyday life of a working village - or if you've ever wondered what it is exactly that a shepherd does.

If you're flying
Jazeera Airways over the next month,
take a look at our longer feature story on Lois and Ismael's eco-tourism project in J Magazine, the airline's in-flight read.

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