Visiting the Dana Reserve in Jordan

Just 35km from Petra, Dana Reserve straddles the edge of the Great Rift Valley. This is Jordan’s largest nature reserve, covering 320km² of varying and spectacular scenery. The shark-tooth mountain ridges fall from a height of 1,600m down intricate cliffs and canyons of sandstone, limestone and granite that have been strangely cut by millennia of winds. When the land finally levels out, 100m below sea level, the desert provides its own raw beauty.

Dana’s varying altitudes and topography mean the reserve spans four distinct eco-zones, from the Mediterranean environment of the mountains, through Irano-Turanian and Sudanian to the Saharo Arabian desert plains of Wadi Arabi. This has resulted in an unusual wealth of flora and fauna,, including ibex, caracals and over 200 species of birds. As well as its resident bird species, Dana is on the major migratory routes between Asia, Europe and Africa, making it one of the best places for birdwatching in Jordan.

Where to stay in Jordan’s Dana Reserve

A stay at the Feynan Ecolodge, on the site of a former copper mining research camp, is a highlight of many visits to Jordan’s prestigious Dana Biosphere Reserve. Nabil Tarazi is the wilderness lodge’s Managing Director.

“The local community is at the heart of what we do at the lodge,” says Nabil. “We’ve stuck to an exclusive 100 percent local employment commitment to ensure over half of the money that a guest spends is put directly into the surrounding economy. All in all, some 450 people from the local community benefit.”

In 2011, the lodge was highly commended at the Responsible Tourism Awards for its poverty reduction initiatives, while in 2019 it won gold for its efforts to reduce carbon emissions. It sits at one end of the Wadi Dana Trail, one of the best hiking routes in Dana Reserve, and since it was opened in 2005 by Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) has provided a masterclass in developing sustainable tourism.

“We know that 80 percent of guests coming to Feynan Ecolodge are seeking a unique, culturally fulfilling adventure,” says Nabil. “It’s these sorts of responsible travellers that we need to visit Jordan to see for themselves that it’s a safe place. And it’s only through their return that we’ll be able to continue our commitment towards conservation and poverty reduction through sustainable tourism.”

Jordan is a very safe country to travel to, but tourism here has been significantly affected by significant drops in visitor numbers following the Arab Spring, ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Covid-19 pandemic, which have had a huge impact on local people that depend on tourism for their livelihoods.

Outstanding progress has already been achieved, but much work remains to be done. The Dana Reserve is one of the great jewels in Jordan’s crown, and responsible tourism here is needed more than ever.

Conservation & community tourism

Jordan is unique in that conservation in the country is managed by an NGO and not directly by the government. In 1966 a group of hunters concerned by diminishing prey banded together and established the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), under the auspices of the then-King Hussein.

The hunters realised that their actions had been destroying one of Jordan’s most precious natural resources – wildlife – and by setting up the RSCN they were going to do something positive to protect it instead. Having received a mandate from the Jordanian government to start establishing and managing Jordan’s nature reserves, in 1989 the RSCN created the Dana Biosphere Reserve.

Feynan Ecolodge was the most ambitious undertaking that the RSCN developed. At the time it was the only ecolodge in Jordan, literally in the middle of nowhere and totally off grid, generating energy entirely by solar panels. The RSCN decided to develop the lodge to show that ecotourism is a sustainable alternative to destructive copper mining whilst also bringing much needed benefit to the impoverished communities living within the surrounding areas.
Nabil adds: “Through a combination of offering unique and authentic experiences, interaction with local people and explaining the benefits of ecotourism we’ve been able to influence tourist behaviours and in so doing conserve our natural landscapes and reduce poverty.”

Ensuring that local people benefit financially can significantly help the success of conservation projects. And the Feynan Ecolodge has had a huge impact in this regard through its employment policies and community activities.

    As the lodge is 8km from the closest paved road, local herdsmen and farmers are hired to transfer guests via their four-wheel drive pickup vehicles. There are 45 drivers on a rota who work with the lodge to provide transport during their free time – and all money from the transfer goes directly to the drivers. Bread is baked to order by local Bedouin women, and purchased for a significantly higher price than it would normally cost to buy in bulk from Amman, enabling them to improve their homes and lives. Candle and leather workshops are in place for local people to supply the lodge with products that can be either used in-house or sold to guests. Guests are invited to visit local homes and find out how to make coffee, bread or weave goat hair. The additional fee collected is given directly to the family. Most food for the lodge comes from local shops within a 40km radius.

There aren’t many accommodations anywhere that bring you so in touch with the local community.
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Visiting Dana village

Dana has cultural as well as natural treasures. There is evidence of human habitation here dating back to Palaeolithic times, and Dana village itself is believed to be over 400 years old, although people have lived here for more than 6,000 years. The village is perched right at the edge of the Great Rift Valley with views west down the steep rock walls to the desert of Wadi Arabia.

Roughly dressed honey-coloured stones are stacked to make the walls of houses and terraced fields, giving the settlement an organic feel, an unintentional aesthetic that harmoniously marries human habitation and nature. Many of the square, flat-roofed houses are empty and fallen into disrepair. But not all; this is still a living community and through tourism it is starting to thrive again after years of decline.

This enchanting hamlet had suffered from outward migration but tourism in the park has revived its fortunes. Fruits grown organically in its terraced gardens are now hand processed into jams at a small workshop; high quality silver jewellery with nature-inspired designs is crafted by local women; and goatskins are made into picture frames. In total, the park employs around 70 people, the vast majority originally from Dana village or nearby communities.

Stood at the western edge of the village, right where the land falls away there are views out towards the distant rock walls of another snake in the Great Rift and down to the desert. As the sun sets it is easy to understand why people have chosen to call this place home since the dawn of civilisation.

Walking in Jordan’s Dana Reserve

The Dana Reserve is one of the best places for walking in Jordan, as well as serving up cycling and canyoning. There are many superb routes here of varying length and difficulty, including a section of the famous Jordan Trail and the 16km Wadi Dana Trail.

Our walking tours in Jordan will often spend a day or two in Dana, where you can explore these precious and fragile desert landscapes in the company of an expert guide. They’ll ensure that the environment is cared for properly by ensuring that groups stick to marked trails and all litter is stowed away, while also sharing their knowledge about the park’s flora and fauna. For the intrepid, there is a week-long epic trek from Dana to Petra, wilderness camping or staying in Bedouin encampments all the way.
Photo credits: [Page banner: hikinginjordan] [Intro: Adeeb Atwan] [Conservation & community tourism: hikinginjordan] [Walking in Dana Reserve: hikinginjordan]