The Middle East seems an unlikely destination for sustainable tourism. In a region swept by riots and rebellion, the tiny Kingdom of Jordan has been quietly leading its own revolution in the name of eco tourism.
Jordan is one of the most ecologically diverse nations in the Middle East—and they have every intention of keeping it that way. From Mediterranean woodlands in the north, to fertile wetlands in the east and craggy desert mountains in the south, the Jordanian landscape is well-worth protecting.
Over the past twenty years, Jordan has become a regional, and indeed, world leader in the quest for sustainable, environmentally-friendly eco tourism. With no less than seven ecologically managed nature reserves, Jordan is the perfect place to get back to nature.
Where did it begin?
The drive for eco-tourism in Jordan began in 1966, with the formation of The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. Under the patronage of the Jordanian Royal Family, RSCN was charged with the responsibility of protecting the Kingdom’s natural heritage.
In the years since, the scheme has met great success; in 2010, Wild Jordan—RSCN’s business division – was awarded the prestigious Guardian newspaper Ethical Travel Award, in recognition of the organisation’s ecoachievements throughout Jordan.
Today, anyone who visits Jordan and travels to the many eco nature-reserves will not only experience a country with progressive attitudes towards the environment, but a nation that cares about its people. RSCN not only works to protect each site, but with the revenue generated from tourism, local communities and villages are supported, bringing jobs to hundreds of people.
Eco-tourism may be changing the face of travel in 2012, but nature has always been at the heart of Jordanian culture. Known in Arabic as Al Watan, meaning ‘The Homeland’, Jordan is the fabled sanctuary of the Middle East. The River Jordan, with all its biblical connotations, is the enduring symbol of life and fertility in this part of the world.
Throughout Jordan, the country’s past is etched upon its terrain. Thousands of tourists are drawn here every year to explore the archaeological and natural riches that litter the Kingdom’s landscape. Petra, the most famous of all Jordan’s attractions is a vibrant testament to the importance of the environment to the country’s people.
This ancient city is carved into the very rocks of Mount Hor—it is at once a natural and a manmade phenomenon. No matter how many times you’ve seen Indiana Jones, nothing will prepare you for the majesty of this dusky citadel.
Gateway to the past
Jordan’s treasures don’t end with Petra. Thanks to RSCN, the region is becoming a popular spot for eco-friendly gap year travel holidays. In contrast to the whirlwind capitalism of the nearby United Arab Emirates, Jordan offers a stripped-back Middle Eastern adventure, where the past seeps into the present and history comes to life.
The RSCN oversees a number of protected nature reserves throughout the country, each with their own eco-tourism amenities and activities integrated with socioeconomic projects for local communities. Combine that with a couple of Jordan’s other must-see locations, and you have yourself the perfect cultural itinerary through this Middle Eastern jewel.
Mujib Biosphere Reserve
In 2011, UNESCO announced Mujib as a biosphere reserve. Located in the steppe lands of west Jordan, the Mujib is spliced through its centre by Wadi Mujib—a yawning cavern with towering sides. The Mujib Biosphere proves that eco-tourism is about more than just hikes and bird watching. Carved by the azure waters of the River Mujib, this is the perfect setting for a survival adventure.
Intrepid explorers can take part in river trails (quite literally in the river); climb the rocky outcrops; and even abseil down the cascading waterfalls which drape the canyon sides.
If all that sounds too strenuous, luckily for you, the River Mujib drains into the Dead Sea, another of Jordan’s famous natural beauty-spots. Nine-times saltier than ordinary sea water, it’s ideal for floating and splashing around in.
Dana Biosphere Reserve
Situated in the tumbling mountains of the Jordan Rift Valley, the Dana Biosphere is the most environmentally diverse of all Jordan’s nature reserves. From the skyscraping plateau of Quadesiyya, to the arid lowlands of Wadi Araba, Dana is characterised by dramatic changes in elevation—making it a world-class area for hiking and exploration.
It was the first of Jordan’s reserves to get the ecotreatment, and is still the most developed area for eco-tourism in the country. As well as a campsite and guesthouse, Dana is also home to the Feynan Ecolodge. Built in the style of a traditional Arabic Caravanserai (a roadside inn for tired travellers), the Feynon Ecolodge is totally nature-friendly—each room is lit entirely by candles.
Ajloun Forest Reserve
In a region surrounded by desert, Ajloun offers a taste of the unexpected. Thickly forested and carpeted in springy meadows, Ajloun is tranquil and unspoiled. Travellers are encouraged to walk the Al Ayoun Trail – a community-run venture, in which three local villages have worked together to create the 12km track through the Ajloun countryside.
Top stops along this track include the village of Rasoun, that is home to the House of Calligraphy where local women train visitors in the basics of Arabic Calligraphy and sell souvenirs.
Ajloun is also home to Ajlun Castle, a twelfth century Islamic citadel built to protect again crusader attacks.
Azraq Wetland Reserve
An oasis in the middle of the eastern desert, the Azraq Wetland Reserve is a haven for migratory birds from Europe and Africa. The reserve has come under threat in recent years from illegal welling, but RSCN have worked hard to protect this unique ecosystem. Visitors can enjoy views overlooking the Azraq Basin from the reserve’s Eco-Lodge, built in a renovated 1940s British Field Hospital.
Shaumari Wildlife Reserve
The Shaumari Wildlife Reserve was established in 1975 as a breeding centre for endangered animals. Today it is home to newly replenished populations of Arabian oryx, ostrich, gazelle, and Persian onager – an animal also known as the Wild Asian Ass.
Wadi Rum is one of Jordan’s most spectacular natural features. Fondly described by many as ‘The Valley of the Moon’, the ancient rivers of Wadi Rum truly are otherworldly, fully capturing the drama of the desert. Home to native Bedouin tribes, this is Jordan’s ultimate outdoor experience. Best known for its connections to Lawrence of Arabia, who set up base here during the Arab Revolt, Wadi Rum can be explored by foot, on camel, or by hot air balloon.
Carved from the rose-pink rock-face of towering desert cliffs, the ancient city of Petra was declared in 2007 to be one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’. From the iconic facade of the Al-Khazneh treasury building, to the freestanding Temple of Winged Lions, each of Petra’s buildings are something to be marvelled at.
There’s more to Jordan than outstanding natural beauty. Amman, the capital city showcases the different personalities of this tiny Middle Eastern kingdom. Tradition buffs against modernity—in the west, the malls and expensive developments at Abdali and the Abdoun Circle represent the 21st Century face of liberal Jordan. By contrast, the eastern quarters of the city showcase the sounds and smells of authentic Jordanian culture.
Amman is also home to Wild Jordan in the heart of the Jabal Amman—First Circle. This centre is a revolutionary complex devoted to promoting the protection and sustainable use of Jordan’s rich natural heritage.
On the outskirts of Amman, visitors can explore the ancient ruins of Jabal al-Qal’a. Archaeological evidence from the site dates back to the Neolithic period, over 7,000 years ago, making Amman one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in human history.
For more information about eco tourism in Jordan, visit: www.rscn.org.jo
This article was in partnership with RSCN.