In Episode 5 of 85 Percent, host Beth Santos sits down with Joelle Sfeir and Nada Raphael of Tourleb, a Lebanese travel company looking to show Lebanon tourism in new light.
Episode 5 of the 85 Percent podcast is live and we can’t wait for you to meet the amazing women highlighted!
New to 85 Percent? Here’s a quick intro
85 Percent is a new podcast hosted by Wanderful’s founder and CEO, Beth Santos. We’re talking about the fact that 85% of travel decisions are made by women, yet women are consistently left out of travel marketing and leadership.
In each episode of this podcast, Beth sits down with a trailblazing woman (or in this case, women) who is making moves to create a more equitable travel equation for all of us.
Introducing Episode 5 with Nada Raphael and Joelle Sfeir
Joelle Sfeir and Nada Raphael are co-founders of Tourleb, a socially responsible tour operator owned by women and based in Lebanon, and a finalist at 2023’s Bessie Awards for Travel Startup of the Year. Although their company began by accident, they have been nothing but intentional in making sure they work within their values including giving back to the community and providing a safe space for their guests.
In this episode, you will hear how passionate they are about Lebanon as well as the importance of travel.
Joelle Sfeir: Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god this is how I feel!
Nada Raphael: This really means the world to us not only to us as two individuals, but to us as also working in tourism, especially in Lebanon, where it’s very challenging. And it’s also I think it means a lot to the team and for the people and our partners, we have been received messages like ‘Go girl, and don’t come without the trophy!’ and I’m like “oh my god, don’t put so much pressure on us!” I think it’s very rewarding, you know, just already to, you know, to have been nominated, second to have been a finalist. This is a journey. And it’s beautiful, just to be recognized just to actually get people to know that we exist somewhere there on the planet on the small little country that is really small, and nobody talks about, yes, they do talk about it, when it’s, you know, burning and bad and whatever. But it’s good to actually you know, know that people are positive and we’ve been also receiving messages from clients and everywhere, “we’re proud of you, go ahead, go, it’s really great for Lebanon, you’re gonna be there,” etc. So yeah, we are very excited. And whatever happens, we are already like tremendously grateful to be here. And we’re grateful actually to have been nominated to be a finalist.
Welcome to the 85 Percent Podcast
Beth Santos: Did you know that women make 85% of travel decisions? Whether booking a trip for our families, or cleaning the hotel rooms, women are the backbone of the travel industry. But the people we see in travel shows marketing and leadership? They don’t look like us. Now we’re cutting through the noise to talk to the changemakers, the trailblazers, and the women who make travel what it is and how we can make travel better for all of us. This is 85%. I’m your host, Beth Santos.
Meet Joelle Sfeir and Nada Raphael of Tourleb
Nada Raphael: “And we try to look at everything tourists don’t do.”
Beth Santos: The voices you hear are Joelle Sfeir and Nada Raphael. Joelle and Nada are the founders of Tourleb, a company that organizes trips and tours for travelers to experience their country of Lebanon. I met Joelle and Nada during one of the most unlikely experiences – in the middle of an Icelandic snowstorm. But something about them –their commitment to supporting local business, to giving back to the earth, and to promoting tourism in a place that many Americans tend to avoid as a tourism hotspot – all of this really intrigued me.
It turned out that Tourleb has intrigued a lot of Wanderful women. It made it as far as being selected as a finalist for our 2023 Bessie Award for Travel Startup of the Year.
About the Bessie Awards
The Bessies are named after Bessie Coleman, the first woman of African American and Native American descent to hold a pilot’s license. It honors women and gender-diverse people of impact in travel, particularly influencers, creative entrepreneurs, marketers, and other representatives who have contributed really unique voices and work to the travel industry. Travel Startup of the Year is all about recognizing the recent work of an engaging, innovative and impactful startup that’s really changing the way we travel. Anyone can nominate someone for a Bessie Award, but only past and present attendees of the WITS Travel Creator Summit can vote as well as a society of past Bessie award winners. The idea is to leverage our community of women to propel each other forward.
Even though they didn’t win the Bessie, it doesn’t shine any less of a spotlight on Joelle and Nada’s amazing work. I wanted to hear more of their story while we were together for the recent WITS in San Juan, Puerto Rico. So we sat down in a conference room, pina coladas in hand I might add, and talked about one of the things they loved most. Spoiler alert: it’s travel. It turns out, the travel bug is pretty unshakeable for them. When they’re not hosting visitors and introducing them to Lebanon, they’re visitors themselves, taking tours, making mental notes, and just being the type of traveler that they’d like to see more of in our world.
Nada Raphael: So we try to actually go find the locals. Like for example, we took the free walking tour of Puerto Rico. We always do the free walking tour. Every city we visit, we make it a point, not because it’s free, because it’s the one that everyone takes, because it’s the most popular tour in every city in the world. So we go there, we try to discover, we ask a lot of questions. So we’re the annoying people, so we ask the questions, etc. And usually at the end of the tour, if we connect with the person, we just give our feedback. You can actually decide not to do anything with what we’re telling you but because we’re in this field, for us it’s like our duty to help out and to tell people you know, we’ve been there we started somewhere and now are somewhere else and we want you to get to the same point or to even, be better because this is how we’re going to help other in the community. So this is how we try to travel.
We love hearing the comments, “You were great. You were amazing,” or whatever. So usually, whenever we do an experience, whatever the experience is, at the end, we talk to people and we tell them, “okay, we know you’re gonna tell us we’re the best, we’re the most beautiful women and whatever. But we know that already! Give us the other stuff. We want to know actually, what would make your day better, or what would make your experience better, what’s the things you like, the highlights, and the things you didn’t like?” Because you cannot please everyone and anyone.
I think that for us, it is important that we actually live with this feedback, the feedback makes us grow. So we do feel the same when we travel, we do feel the same. And we think that people need to know that we all grow if nobody knows everything, we always learn. So let’s learn from each other.
Joelle Sfeir: We have as Lebanese more in common with Puerto Ricans, than we have Americans. The good part is that we lived in Canada, which allows us to understand the American culture, but it’s a reality also, there is a cultural difference. And as such, it’s sometimes in certain settings, it’s easier to understand the Puerto Rican reality, if you add on top of that we are in tourism, and we are against mass tourism, everything that we’re seeing in Puerto Rico is equally interesting and sad. And there’s such an untapped market, the locals are only doing 1% of what they could be doing.
Nada Raphael: Take, for example, the tour we did with WITS, the tour we did with the Santa Isabel, in the agricultural fields, for example. I was shocked to know that, with all this richness that the soil has, a lot of people don’t do agriculture, they have a problem in finding employees, they even have a problem actually planting and growing because people are not interested in agriculture. We walked in San Juan and the Old San Juan, the mango trees! This I think is my frustration, saying that everyday I think everyone looks at me like weirdly, but actually I’ve been walking in San Juan, and I see all these mango trees and the mangoes lying on the floor, nobody picks them up! They don’t even have one single dish with mango in the hotel, we have salad and they give you oranges instead of mango. All this makes us think and wonder how can we make it better?
How can we actually give a push to people to actually make them understand that first of all, tourism is not only tourism, it’s also a way of knowing the cultures and to try to break your comfort zone and to get into a zone that you’re not comfortable with. But this is the exciting part of it. This is the adventure part of it.
And it’s the good part of knowing people and knowing what are their challenges on their daily basis and try to give them input and tell them “you go girls, you’re amazing,” or “You go guy, you’re doing a great job.”
Beth Santos: Highlighting what makes a place unique is a critical part of the way Joelle and Nada frame seeing the world. In Puerto Rico, for example, 85% of food is imported, a fact that hits many travelers by surprise, especially when you arrive at your hotel and find strawberries and apples instead of locally grown fruit. But that’s part of travel too, not just the beauty and the sights, but understanding the challenges of a place – the political and social difficulties, and the initiatives that are happening on the ground to make it better. That’s what I believe is the most true form of engaging with a place, getting to know it at a 360 degree level. It’s good and it’s not- so-good qualities.
That’s one of the things that makes Nada and Joelle, not just great travelers, but great hosts. The US Department of State lists Lebanon as a level 3 travel advisory, level 4 being “do not travel”. It advises travelers to reconsider travel due to crime, terrorism, armed conflict, civil unrest and kidnapping, especially with Lebanon’s proximity to Syria. But the stories told about Lebanon also make Nada and Joelle feel uniquely empowered to tell the world of the good that happens within their borders too: the incredible culture, the landscape, the people. That is what has propelled them forward.
Joelle Sfeir: Nada and I met almost 20 years ago, give or take 12 years ago. Nada in 2006 actually was filming in Lebanon, it was after the Israeli war on Lebanon of 33 days and Nada was filming the aftermath. And I don’t know why she noticed as if for the first time in her life a mosque and a church next to one another and she’s like, “oh, let’s do a photography book of all the places where in Lebanon you have a mosque and a church to show people,” because at the time we were living in Canada, and people in Canada were, “yeah Muslims, Christians you hate each other, you always kill each other.” And she came back and she’s like, “let’s do this”. And we said great idea. The project quickly evolved from a 20 pages photography book to almost 1000 pages of a full project encompassing a photo exhibit, a documentary, a big coffee book table, and local stories.
We traveled throughout the country, from extreme north to extreme south, talking to people on the street. We didn’t take any appointments. We didn’t talk to officials. We didn’t go into that political discourse. And we took the oral stories of how Christians and Muslims live together beyond political and religious divides.
These old stories gave us a completely different take on Lebanon, we launched the project in Canada and in Montreal. And from there, people, foreigners and Lebanese expats living in Canada for ages started coming to us and telling us “hold on, I want to go to page 250, I didn’t know we had that in Lebanon, take me with you on your next trip.” And this is how Tourleb started. And in 2013, we took the name of Tourleb, we took the logo, we like branded ourselves and in September 2023, 10 years.
The Beginning of Tourleb
Nada Raphael: What Joelle is saying is that we started by accident, I like to say by accident, it’s a beautiful accident. It’s an amazing accident. When I hear people that are changing their lives completely to do something they love, this what happened to us that we started first by telling people, “okay, come along, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that, etc.” And we started doing off the beaten tracks without even knowing we were doing off the beaten tracks. Because for us, it became natural. We go here, we go there, and we started seeing Lebanon differently, because both of us left Lebanon for a reason, not only because of the war, but because of we wanted job opportunities. Outside of Lebanon, we wanted a career, both of us were working in a completely different field. I’m a journalist, Joelle worked as a communications officer and she also has a background in geography. And this made us realize that oh my god, Lebanon can be so different. Yes, we have challenges. But at the end of the day, it’s beautiful to have this challenge. This is what makes the country rich.
And so when we started the experiences, I remember the first experience we did back in 2003, it was even before we had the name Tourleb and everything. It was an experience like that. And we were coming to Lebanon and I had journalists with me and I decided to take like these old buses of the 80s. You know, these buses that have songs, like music and honks and whatever. So we went up into villages, we met with people, we had this lady cooking in a field and whatever. People were like, “oh my god, we never knew we could actually travel like this.” And then people from Lebanon started calling us and like, “can we go with you?” This is how it started. Right? And when we came back in 2013, in Lebanon, we were like, “Okay, now what do we do now?. We don’t have a full-time job. So now what we have to do is actually to try to work this out.” Because even if you have a bit of money aside, we have to pay our bills, right? So how do we do that? And it was hard to come back to your country of origin. When you have lived so long outside of the country, you are a stranger for people, for the locals. So you are the rich person coming from abroad, and you picture them with like tons of gold in their bag. So they see you like this, and they see you like the whatever the doodads who can come and take over the market and etc. So you have to establish kind of a trust between people and to find a team.
Building a business amidst political unrest
Beth Santos: Nada and Joelle spent years building up their business only to see it fail twice. The first time happened in 2016, during a time of political unrest and major protests.
Nada Raphael: In 2016, we had a huge problem, political problem in Lebanon. So we lost everything. In 2017 it was a consultant who came to us and I was so depressed, Joelle was so depressed, we’re like, “okay, that’s it, we’re going back to Canada. And then it’s like too much for us.” And so this guy came up and he’s like, “No, you have something you have to stay, I’m going to tell you how you do this.” And he actually helped us a lot, to think business, which we never thought business.
Joelle Sfeir: It was actually just a simple project. Originally, it was supposed to be something on the side. And very quickly, it became 90% of our occupation, 25% revenue, which obviously doesn’t make sense. We’re lucky in that both of us are multi, you know, we did a lot of things. So we can always fall back on something. But we did realize that there was a potential and we wanted to continue in spite of all the challenges. So in 2016, when we lost everything, and we’ve met with Yusef and he gave us all the business advice. And this is where we’re like, “okay, we can do this.” And this is when you really started working in 2017, 18, 19 it was going up, we were really going up, and then 2018 and end of 2019 we had hired like five or six people. And then I don’t need to go into 2019, 2020. The revolution started in Lebanon in March 2020. We all know what it was. And then August 2020, the third most powerful non-nuclear blast that destroyed half of Beirut. So these were very beautiful moments. This is where we took a big hit.
Nada Raphael: In 2020 we were on the field with French people, we were passing by Beirut and we went up to the mountains. And we were actually in the middle of a tour and then the blast happened. We were out, but we had tourists inside the city, it was something that we still talk about, we even think about it and have goosebumps because we were on the tour. And we were looking at each other, “should we tell them or not?” because we weren’t far from it. But everyone knew it because everyone was talking about it on the news. So we had to actually tell the tourists that we have to stay here, etc.
So Joelle continued on the tour, and I went back to Beirut, to actually help out the other tourists that were there, you had to help everyone there. And because I’m also a journalist, I also had to actually be there to also give news here and there and etc. I’m still a correspondent for CBC in Canada. So from time to time, I just keep reports and everything, help out the people, build houses etc. So Tourleb changed also completely, because we became this company who were actually doing activities to help out families in need. So you had the blast, you had people losing their houses, plus you had the economical crisis. So imagine you are someone working on a daily basis, let’s say in a bank, and you have a salary of $2,000, $3,000 a month and, in exactly one month, you lose everything in the banks, you have no access to your money, and your salary goes down from $3000 to $30 max, how do you cope with that? So luckily Joelle and I started doing side jobs, like journalism and stuff, to pay for Tourleb, to help out 37 families, to rescue dogs because we had people because of the economic crisis, were dropping their dogs, that were like just dumping them because it wasn’t in their top 10 thing. Last year we rescued 157 dogs. We still have ten dogs in a shelter and we have our six dogs. So this is also a responsibility we have and trust me now when we walk on the street we’re like “I didn’t see the dog, I didn’t see the dog.”
Beth Santos: Tourleb’s mission changed overnight, rather than being a generic tour company. Nada and Joelle realized tourism’s power to influence, fund and improve, and they realized they were at the front seat of that change. They chose to center their key business pillars on RESPECT: Responsible travels, Experiential moments, Sustainable experiences, Personalized to your liking, and Empowering women, Communities and Locals. On a general level, we’re told to avoid certain places because they’re unsafe. We’re given really specific direction as women travelers on which countries are safest in the world as if you could rank in the entire country. So I had to ask Nada and Joelle, two women, and queer women, for that matter, whose job it is to showcase their country, and how they felt about Lebanon as a destination for solo women travelers. Here’s what they told me.
Is it safe for women to travel solo to Lebanon?
Joelle Sfeir: The environment in Lebanon is actually as safe as it can be for a solo woman traveler. I’ve been cat-called in Canada, as often as in Lebanon, men will be men in some places which is not a good saying I know. But still, I find that at the end of the day, it’s really you and your limit and your attitude. Lebanon is actually in some aspects safer for women than other destinations, because you do have this social construct that one, you do not touch a tourist, we could all kill each other, but no one would touch a tourist. And the second thing is that there’s a huge respect for women, we actually want them to feel safe, men want them to to feel safe. We’ve heard so many stories of women travelers who would tell us “I was walking around and this guy came up to me and made sure that I was okay, and if I needed a ride.” Instead of you know, you’d have the other story where the person would be attacked. Now, of course, saying that Lebanon is 100% safe equals saying that the US or Canada or France is 100% safe. You do have your accidents or your crappy things that happen. But all in all, it’s super safe.
We do have negative challenges. And we do have some social problems. And we do hear stories of travelers who didn’t feel at ease – not unsafe, but at ease, because sadly, there’s racism. And there is classism. And it is why we say that when people come with us, they have a safe space. And we focus a lot on that safe space, whether you have African American descent or LGBT, this is also another thing.
Lebanon is still the most open country in the Middle East. People come from the Middle East to Lebanon to seek refuge, it’s a safe haven. But if you want to compare it to Canada, or more Western countries, then this is where you can see the bucks but I do know that it’s true. And I know that the States isn’t always safe for African Americans etc, etc. So in that aspect, still Lebanon is safer but you do have your challenges. You will hear comments, we don’t want you to hear comments and this is why we focus on offering safe space.
Nada Raphael: We don’t want people to think that Lebanon is paradise, because it’s not. Because if it was paradise, honestly, it wouldn’t be even interesting. It is an interesting country because it has those challenges and like Joelle said, we’d like to offer safe space. So we’ve been working for the past seven, eight years to actually give workshops for free for a lot of people that are working in travel to first of all, tell them you need to respect whoever the person is in front of you, that can be as different as wherever it gets. Because differences are everywhere, we are all humans, right? Differences can actually be a bit scary. We are scared of differences, so you act weirdly or violently, or whatever.
So our teams have a workshop and their talks and everything about, one, respect, two, to try to give us an environment for everything. Like for example, we were talking about women travelers, they come solo, they come even without us, they walk on the street, all the people that came with us or even without us, I’m thinking for example Dose of Travel, Nabila, for example, she went to Lebanon for a month alone, we saw her two days. And she was, ask her – she was like perfectly safe, she was even going to places alone, taking a cab here and there. Which is perfect, right? But it’s also good to tell people that of course, the attitude changes everything. Of course, how you approach changes everything. If you come like, we have, for example, a lot of French people who come and they still think that Lebanon is a French colony. So they talk to you as if they own you. And you’re like, no, you don’t. So when you have this attitude, of course, you’re going to have a problem, right? Not because you’re a woman, you can be a man too, it’s the same thing, right? As Joelle said, it is safe. And we are trying to empower all these people and trying to give them everything for them to actually give as much as I can a safe space to everyone.
Hopes for the future of our travel industry
Beth Santos: So what can the travel industry do to support more women?
Nada Raphael: I think that what I wish for the travel industry, one, is to travel responsibly, to learn more about the communities that live, like the real life of communities, to understand how actually each country lives on a daily basis, not only to go to the big resorts and to give money to the rich people, we need to actually help out. Tourism can also be something really interesting, and helping each other and getting out of economical crisis, if we actually channel and we actually send the money to the right pockets. I wish that travel becomes more responsible, more open. And people travel also not only adjust to yes to have fun, but you can have fun in so many different ways. And you can travel in so many different parts of the world. For me, the best thing is one, to communicate more, or to communicate, to share experiences more and to share about our differences in different countries. Because this is what’s going to make it more beautiful. Like as a travel in general.
Joelle Sfeir: I want to add in an ideal world, I wish people would drop their filters visiting a country. I want everyone to travel in a more sustainable and fair way. I want everyone to not break market prices, I absolutely hate that practice of travel agencies that want to break the price to make an extra $10 per person that is taken away from a local business. And I really want people to drop their filters because the problem is that you come with your knowledge, and you see everything through that lens. And at the end of the day, the information that you’re hearing is biased. And it happens a lot with content creators and the people who are putting this nation out there, and it kills it. So I also want more empathy when people come to Lebanon because I’ve heard all sorts of complaints from people and it’s not only Lebanon. Puerto Rico, sometimes you hear people “oh my god, it’s so hot. I want the AC.” Okay, you’re hot. You’re in Puerto Rico, I mean, you’re in Lebanon, it’s the Mediterranean, it’s the month of August it’s gonna be hot. And if you cannot deal with the country with the challenges that the country you’re in, imposes on you then don’t travel stay at home.
Nada Raphael: We need to just remove everything we have in our head and misconception or anything we have in our head and just relax and enjoy and enjoy and enjoy the people, meet the people know their stories, meet what’s behind it know the story of the country, know the story of each person you’re looking at, people are people who are into history other they hate history, people that like ruins, others hate ruins, people that like food, people that don’t care about food, you have all this and you can travel differently. You can only travel by just eating right? The recipe has a story. We know in Lebanon for example, we’re eating the same food 6000 years ago but the recipe evolved and from north to south they use different recipes, you can just do it travel like that just with food. There are so many different ways to travel. So just lay back, start your vacation, just be open to everything new you’re getting and then relax and enjoy.
Joelle Sfeir: I see a lot of online comments and some travel communities that say if in this country if they force women to wear a veil too early, I’m not doing it, I’m gonna boycott or in this country there’s an economic crisis I don’t want to go. I understand that because I’m the first one to think that “oh my god, I hate how they practice this and that.” But at the end of the day, tourism is another set, you have a million types of tourism. You can choose to go in a big cruise ship with 5000 other people and do a city for one day. And you can choose to contact a very local small company and go with them and discover the country in a different way.
And when it comes to Lebanon, I know that we have a lot of people even online Lebanese people living abroad will say, “oh my god, there’s an economic crisis in Lebanon. How can I go have fun when people are dying?” I say this how can you have fun in Puerto Rico when you have people dying in Africa? How can you go discover Africa when you have people being shot at in schools in the US? But at the end of the day, each one of us has a life to live and you make the most of it by learning about other people so that you start talking and changing your own discourse, and I think this is where real change happens.
Beth Santos: I couldn’t have said it better myself. To find out more about Tourleb, check out our show notes and follow Joelle and Nada on Instagram @Tourleb. Stay tuned for my next three episodes, where we’ll meet some other amazing women from WITS – whether Bessie Award nominees, attendees and more – all with a mission for changing travel for women, and all of us worldwide. This is 85 Percent.
About the 85 Percent Podcast
Women make 85 percent of travel decisions. So why are we not 85% of travel marketing?
85 Percent explores what it means to be a woman in travel through interviews with leading women in the travel, tourism and hospitality industries.
From CEOs, to travel influencers and writers, to women who work in cleaning and maintenance, we’re cutting into the underbelly of an industry that is predominantly made of women, but still fails to include them, and is hosted by Beth Santos, founder of leading women’s travel network, Wanderful.
About the Host, Beth Santos
Beth Santos is a passionate entrepreneur and community builder out to disrupt travel for women worldwide. She is founder and CEO of Wanderful, an international collective of travelers and travel content creators on a mission to make travel better for all women. She is the creator of the WITS Travel Creator Summit, a leading event for women and gender diverse travel creators, the annual Bessie Awards to honor women of impact in travel, and the first major outdoor travel festival by and for women, Wanderfest.
Beth has been named one of 17 changemakers shaping the future of the travel industry by Business Insider, one of 12 women to follow by Conde Nast Traveller, and one of 20 influential women in the travel industry by Travel Pulse. In 2022, she was named Godmother of the Azamara Onward cruise ship.
She is the author of WANDER WOMAN: How to Reclaim Your Space, Find Your Voice, and Travel the World, Solo and works to amplify underrepresented voices in travel while challenging each of us to do better in her work as a keynote speaker, an industry consultant, and a startup and small business coach. At home she is a co-owner of Ula Cafe, an inspired cafe and community hub in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, where she lives with her husband and children.
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Season 3 of the 85 Percent Podcast will highlight the winners of the 2024 Bessie Awards and the work they’re doing to make travel better for women worldwide. Stay tuned for 9 new episodes to drop in fall 2024!