Jordan's Eco Tourism
Forward thinking and environmentally friendly, Jordan is emerging as a surprise star of sustainable tourismFeatured March 11 Words by Matthew Teller
When you think of eco-tourism you might dream of an Algarve eco-village, trekking in the Alps, or whale watching in Scotland. You probably wouldn't think of a holiday in one of the world's most water- poor nations, where around 90% of the land is classified as arid desert. But then I've been visiting Jordan for more than 15 years, and it still manages to surprise me.
The Middle East is coming late to the eco-tourism party. While showy Gulf destinations trumpet the latest mega scheme, little Jordan has been quietly getting on with developing environmentally friendly, sustainable tourism from the grass roots up. At the vanguard has been the country's Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, or RSCN.
Founded in 1966 to regulate hunting, the RSCN campaigned throughout the 1970s and 1980s on behalf of the Arabian oryx, an endangered desert antelope brought to the edge of extinction by hunting. In the process it slowly transformed itself into an organisation of dedicated conservationists.
Today the RSCN forms one of the region's most determined and effective green lobbies, pressing the Jordanian government for preservation of the country's fragile - and shrinking - natural habitats. Since the 1990s it has expanded into sustainable tourism as a way to support its conservation goals, gaining international recognition in October 2010 when the Wild Jordan tourism unit won the Guardian newspaper's Ethical Travel Award.
It's worth dropping by the Wild Jordan information centre, located just a stroll from Rainbow Street, Amman's buzziest district of bookshops and craft outlets. Perched among historic, century-old villas on the slopes of Jabal Amman - jabal means hill, and this city has lots of them - its lively Wild Jordan Café (Othman bin Affan Street, tel: +962 (0)6 463 3542) is a lovely place to stop. The café does sensational drinks and smoothies - don't miss the fresh-pressed frozen lemonade with mint - and is also one of the few places in Amman to make a selling point of its organic food, with ingredients sourced locally. You can book wilderness excursions around Jordan, learn more about the RSCN's conservation work, and pick up craft items and handmade silver jewellery at the Nature Shop. But the rear terrace is the real draw: visit at sunset for amazing panoramic views of the city.
Yet 21st-century green thinking doesn't stop at the city limits. A three-hour drive south of Amman lies the ancient "lost city" of Petra, once capital of a trading empire that stretched into Syria and Arabia. Even here, among tombs and temples carved into a hidden mountain valley, environmental awareness is having an impact. For years the authorities struggled to provide suitable toilet facilities within this vast, dusty UNESCO-protected site. Technology has, thankfully, caught up: today, as you stroll between the monuments, you'll spot environmentally friendly eco-toilets distributed discreetly along the main path.
But it's in Jordan's less-visited wilderness areas that you can start to get under the skin of this unsung eco-destination. Distances are small, landscapes are varied and there's a good infrastructure for rural tourism. Only 75km north of Amman, the modest market town of Ajloun stands amid dense forests at 1,000m above sea level: up here the air is fresh and the scenery is green and beautiful.
Ajloun's 800-year-old castle, built by Saladin's armies to defend against the Crusaders, is a popular attraction, visible for miles around silhouetted on a hilltop. Here, you can spend a fine afternoon roaming around its old rooms and climbing stone staircases to emerge at the highest point of the ruins for a spectacular view over the orchards, olive groves and country villages.
It may have slipped your attention, but 2011 is International Year of Forests, so it's the perfect time to book a stay in the RSCN's Ajloun Forest Reserve (from JD59; tel: +962 (0)6 463 3589, rscn.org.jo), outside the town. Quiet country lanes lead to the reserve buildings, set in the heart of rolling Mediterranean woodland - mainly evergreen oak, with pistachio, carob and wild strawberry trees among the olives.
When I arrived, Louai Al-Nimry, tourism manager at the reserve, was waiting to welcome me with a glass of sage tea and a run-through of the reserve's fauna, which includes some very European names (foxes, badgers and wild boar) alongside wildcats, striped hyena and Asiatic jackals. Roe deer, previously extinct here, now roam freely within the reserve. Louai's enthusiasm is infectious; born and raised in the adjacent village of Orjan, he explained how he'd rejected job offers from big hotels to come back to the countryside.
This kind of attitude permeates the whole place. All the food served at dinner and breakfast is locally produced, from the yoghurt and goat's cheese to the chicken, fresh-baked bread, wild herbs and fruit jam. One of the reserve's many walking trails leads to Rasoun village, where I stopped in at the Soap House, an RSCN project to employ local women making luxury olive-oil soap. Manager Rima Hamzat showed me around, explaining how village families are benefiting from this new source of income. "Before this project we didn't do anything," she told me. "Now our girls are able to study at university and have work in our village."
Far to the east, in Jordan's open, stony deserts, the Azraq oasis, which attracts migrating birds in their thousands, is now protected as a wetland habitat, home to unique fauna from water buffalo to tiny, silver killifish. The RSCN has converted an old British army field hospital into tourist lodgings, bringing in a local Chechen family to prepare home-cooked meals for overnight visitors from their repertoire of folk recipes. Azraq's traditional salt industry has been decimated, and the RSCN has been working against a backdrop of economic depression to help local women produce craft items for sale in nature shops around Jordan, giving them an alternative source of local income.
It's a classic RSCN way of working - conservation married with socio-economic development. As conservationist Chris Johnson explains: "This is how we try to work - to make sure the people dependent on the land are the main beneficiaries of alternative livelihood programmes. We go in as equals, as partners."
I swung south towards the RSCN's flagship scheme at Dana, a previously overlooked village in the mountains above Petra. For the past 15 years a project to protect a tract of land centred on the majestic Dana Valley has won international acclaim, not least for its success in pioneering responsible tourism.
Dana consistently takes your breath away. From the low-key guesthouse at the top of the valley (from JD59; tel: +962 (0)3 227 0497, rscn.org.jo), designed by Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash in the local style, to the solar-powered Feynan eco-lodge (from JD67; tel: +962 (0)6 464 5580, feynan.com), with no electricity or road access, guests are guaranteed a unique experience. Virtually all of the tourism- related jobs, from tour guides and rangers to managers, cooks, receptionists, cleaners and shop staff are taken by local villagers, so more than 800 people benefit directly from Dana's success.
One of the most beautiful walks leads up to the eloquently named Shag ar-Rish, or "Canyon of the Feathers". Setting off with twinkle-eyed nature guide Abu Yahya, we rambled amid flower-filled meadows, surrounded by the rocky domes that characterise the Dana heights. As we reached a pass and began to climb into the Canyon of the Feathers, Abu Yahya explained why the place was so named: not for the raptors that soared overhead, but for the sharp pinnacles of rock that flank the gorge, like feathers. The summit, dotted with evidence of settlement by the Nabateans - the people who built Petra, just 40km to the south - offered stupendous, silent vistas.
This is what Jordan does so well these days: low-impact, sensitively developed, sustainable tourism, referred to in the trade as "soft adventure", but always with that sense of grass-roots inspiration. Local tour operators are starting to cater for this growing market - three of the most noteworthy are Terhaal (terhaal. com), Sarha (sarha.jo) and Petra Moon (petramoon.com), all of whom offer hiking, trekking, mountain biking and various other exploratory trips into Jordan's wilderness areas.
As Ali Hasasseen, a local nature guide based at Feynan, explained: "If you follow the community's way - their tradition and religion - you can create opportunity while preserving your culture. This is what we are doing. I love my work!"