Walking the streets of ancient Petra at dawn. Floating on the super-saline waters of the Dead Sea. Riding a camel through the vast deserts of Wadi Rum. These are must-have experiences for a reason. But, they don’t necessarily provide a deep understanding of the country. If you’re looking for something more meaningful, sustainable tourism can show you a local’s view of Jordan and make a positive impact on the communities you visit.
I’ve been working in travel and tourism for more than a decade and am madly in love with it. The opportunity to help others explore the world and themselves gives me complete satisfaction. However, a few years ago I started tracking the impact of tourism. I’d go back to a place I loved for its serenity, only to find it overrun by tourists snapping selfies and rushing in and out of the place, sometimes leaving mounds of plastic bottles behind, shooing away hawkers that pester them for money or pencils, and checking another destination off their list in a race to see as much as possible in the limited time they have.
So, I started looking at the impact of my own trips. Where is the money I am spending going? What impacts am I leaving on the social and cultural fabric of the people I meet? Travel is becoming more accessible, and as the market grows (to more than 1 billion travelers around the world annually) we need to find a different way of doing things.
That is when I started dreaming up Baraka Destinations, with the philosophy that if we design and develop tourism destinations in complete partnership with the local communities, supporting them in their quest to develop experiences to share with tourists that truly represent them, then it would be a better kind of tourism. If we engage tourists in the story of the place, the environment, and how it translates to everyday life, then they will start to care more deeply about the culture and be more conscious of their social and environmental impact.
A couple of years ago we got to work, and chose the village Um Qais as a pilot destination.
Um Qais is a beautiful village in northern Jordan that gets very few travelers. It’s home to the ancient ruins of the Greek Decapolis city of Gadara, the Yarmouk Nature Reserve, and a population of seven thousand people that claim their artistic roots all the way back to Hellenistic Greek poets like Meleager. They’ve kept their rich heritage very much alive and have maintained a close relationship with the land, foraging wild plants and herbs that become stars in their traditional meals. And in a country known for warmth and hospitality, you won’t find a place more welcoming.
Baraka Destinations works with the Um Qaisawis to develop community-owned and run tourism projects – guided hikes and bike rides, cooking classes, farm-to-table meals – that offer an insider’s perspective on what life is like here. Visitors learn first-hand about the local culture – and the benefits run both ways.
In Um Qais, families of seven aren’t uncommon, and they’re often supported by a single income, mostly from welfare or low-paying government jobs. Sustainable tourism provides them with opportunities that ordinary jobs don’t. These experiences provide a much-needed source of local income along with a valuable cultural exchange.
Take Yousef, for example. He’s been a beekeeper for the last twenty years, but now he offers an experience where visitors can join him at work and learn about the fascinating queendom of bees. His passion for bees is completely contagious – any given day, given the choice of spending time with bees or people, he would probably choose bees, and after an afternoon with him, you begin to understand his devotion. His wife and two children have an admiration for him that is hard to miss.
After he walks visitors through his farm, offering compelling details on the life of bees, he invites his guests to put on the white suits, open a couple of hives, and observe the bees going about their day. “The most satisfying thing about my work is when I see tourists leaving my site completely fascinated and respectful of this incredible species,” he told me. “I am proud that I am able to do that.”
Since most of the villagers will never have the opportunity to travel, these encounters help open up the world to them. They learn about geography when a guest shows them a map of where they come from, and they swap stories with their visitors about local customs and culture. It only takes a few minutes into a conversation to realize just how much we all have in common. After all, isn’t that why we travel?
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