Think of travel in the Middle East, and it's likely that eco-tourism isn't the first thought that comes to mind. Often associated with desert sands, rich history, deep religious symbolism, and political unrest, the Middle East has certainly projected an image to travelers, and eco-tourism is barely a pixel. However, up close, that pixel packs a pretty powerfully green punch, emanating from Jordan.
The middle of the Middle East, the country of Jordan has suffered very little with regards to political instability, terrorism, and tourist safety concerns. As such, it is a relatively popular destination in the Middle East, although it remains definitively under the radar of many unadventurous travelers.
While Jordan's approach to holistic sustainability, outlined in its National Tourism Strategy for 2004 - 2010, is full of sky-high ambitions and serious gaps in policies, their goal of diversifying their tourism industry through eco-tourism is a start in the right direction. In nurturing their eco-tourism niche, Jordan has ensured that the economic benefits yielded from eco-tourism are used in the preservation of the country's protected areas.
Wild Jordan, a division of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), is the organization responsible for socio-economic development through eco-tourism and conservation efforts. Wild Jordan has facilitated job creation through eco-tourism ventures for hundreds of members of the local population, meanwhile ensuring the protected environments remain properly attended to. They've also created eco-tourism facilities in four of Jordan's protected areas, including a variety of accommodations, trails, and tours.
In addition to Wild Jordan, the country is also benefitting from the involvement of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), a grassroots division of the international Friends of the Earth, who coordinate environmental projects throughout the Middle East. In Jordan, FoEME have focused on ecosystems: reversing damage in the Jordan River, and preventing damage in Aqaba, while educating the Jordanian government on sustainable tourism development and working with them in an advisory capacity.
Those in the know are probably aware of the unique eco-tourism features Jordan has been developing and promoting, and for those who don't - here's what you need to know, and where you should visit:
With a landscape that's meant to rival the moon, Wadi Rum is proof of what the Earth can look like when untouched by humans and left entirely to Mother Nature's devices. There are plenty of vast expanses and mazes of monoliths, perfect for avid hikers and adventurers. Visitors have plenty of guided exploration options, including hiring a 4x4, or a zero (well, sort of) emission camel, and the opportunity to sleep in a traditional Bedouin campsite.
The only coastal city in Jordan lies on the Gulf of Aqaba, the northeastern arm of the Red Sea. Home to the world's northernmost coral reef ecosystem, the gulf and its accompanying city have a lot to offer tourists. The opportunities for marine engagement are vast, and the perpetually developing city has some of the best views in the country.
Dominated by the Ajlun Castle, this area is both an ecological and historical haven. Dating back to 1184 AD, the castle itself is a site that could be explored for ages, and the view could easily consume a DSLR memory card. For the more ecologically inclined, the Aljun Nature Reserve, managed by the RSCN, provides endlessly diverse wildlife viewing opportunities, and two nature trails.
One of the highlights of any eco-buff's trip to Jordan will likely be the Dana Biosphere Reserve. Encompassing over 300 square kilometres of diverse landscape features and rare species of plants and animals, the reserve is meant to be immensely awe-inspiring and incredibly unique. Halfway between the Jordanian capital of Amman and the sea resort of Aqaba, visitors should travel by land to the reserve for unforgettable panoramas.
Azraq & Shawmari
Also managed by the RSCN, the Azraq Wetland Reserve is an oasis in the middle of the Jordanian desert. Famous for its bird-watching, due to its placement on migratory routes, Azraq offers a wide variety of seasonal bird species as well as over 2,000 species of wild flowers in the springtime. However, if mammals are more appealing, the Shawmari Reserve, a breeding centre for rare and endangered animals, visitors can spot the Arabian Oryx, gazelles, and ostriches.
With tourism numbers continuing to rise, Jordan is gaining momentum as a must-see destination. Fortunately, visitors are being directed towards sites other than Jordan's excessively popular Petra, somewhat employing carrying capacity restrictions and thus preserving Jordan's most fragile attraction. Destinations such as Aqaba and other eco-tourism havens are increasing Jordan's popularity and attractiveness to informed travelers. Also, watch for Jordan to follow through with their plans to focus more strongly on voluntourism, something that will further enhance Jordan's image as an eco-tourism hot-spot.
Photo Credit: _ambrown (Aaron Brown)