Responsible tourism in Jordan

Tourism to Jordan has suffered in recent years, with wars in neighbouring Iraq and Syria leading many travellers to steer clear of the Middle East. Recently, however, there has been big improvements, with Jordanians welcoming visitors back to discover their history, heritage and humbling landscapes.

Compared with many countries, Jordan is keen to promote responsible tourism, not only culturally but also in terms of protecting its natural heritage, such as Wadi Rum desert wilderness and Aqaba Marine Park along the Red Sea. It still has a way to go, however, and as tourists we can play our part in making it even more responsible.

People & culture in Jordan

Bedouin heritage

Petra was constructed in the 3rd century BC and is believed to have been the capital city and trading hub of the Nabataean Kingdom. The Nabataeans were one of several Bedouin tribes that lived and wandered around the Arabian Desert and who settled in cave dwellings in this magnificent city, carved into the sandstone rocks and cliff faces of the slope of Jabal Al-Madbah.

In 1985, the Bedouin were resettled from their ancient home as part of the process to have it designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These Bedouin are known as Bidoul, Al B’doul or Petra Bedouin and they now live in six communities in the region, the largest being Wadi Musa. All are very dependent on tourism, however, and even though you may feel frustrated by the fact that many people are touting for business, do please remember that you are in a privileged position to be able to explore their heritage.

There are some Bedouin who feel they are now losing their way of life, their agricultural practices and their traditions in exchange for providing tourism ‘entertainment’. Some 150 Bedouin refused to move from the site at the time of the resettlements and more are moving back now that tourism has taken a serious dent. Bedouin culture and skills were thankfully also recognised by UNESCO, added to the Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2005. This has led to multi generational workshops to facilitate the transfer of knowledge on subjects such as the poetry of Nabatean people – an ancient Bedouin tribe – and the intricacies of coffee ceremonies, helping ancient traditions survive.

You will also meet many Bedouin people while travelling in Wadi Rum, Jordan’s most famous desert region. Before tourism kicked off, their livelihoods revolved around goat herding. There are actually seven tribal groups here, the largest being the Zalabia tribe, most of whom live in Rum village and, working as a cooperative, are largely responsible for desert tours and camping activities. You may also meet members of the Zweideh tribe, based in the villages of Disi in the north of Wadi Rum, although they are still active farmers as they have more water resources on their side of the desert.

What you can do
Please don’t take photographs of Bedouin people without permission. Just ask – it’s the easiest thing to do.

Buy local products if you can and remember that these people aren’t simply guides who have been brought in to do a job. Have a look at this lovely film by Al Jazeera about the lives of Bedouin who are maintaining their cave lifestyles.

Do take time to camp out with the Bedouin and experience their world at sunset and sunrise, listen to their stories, share their unique coffee and food such as goats’ meat or milk, jameed which is similar to yoghurt, and abud, which is bread baked on a fire. Hospitality is at the core of Bedouin philosophy, something that emanates from their ancestral knowledge of how hard it is to survive in this terrain. So anyone who visits is to be well looked after.

Oh, and never put your coffee cup on the ground. It suggests you have something important to discuss with your host. Unless, of course, you do.

Preserving Petra & Madaba

Although the great site of Petra is protected by various national and international organisations, it is still very vulnerable which isn’t surprising given that it is over 2,000 years old and made of a rock that wields beautifully to carving but also to modern day human intervention. There are some strict guidelines to follow, from keeping your walking poles in your backpack to being careful with your donkey, so the Petra National Trust was set up to lead the way. We have written a special guide on this subject alone; see our guide to responsible tourism in Petra and Wadi Rum for more details.

Madaba is famed for its mosaics, which date back to the 5th and 6th centuries. These include a Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land in the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, originally thought to have contained over 2.3 million pieces. More stunning examples can be seen in several of the town’s other churches and in the Madaba Archaeological Museum. Madaba itself is over 3,500 years old, and is mentioned several times in the Old Testament.

Nearby Mount Nebo is said to be the point from where Moses viewed the Promised Land. It’s no surprise then that Madaba lures tourists and pilgrims from across the world to marvel at these ancient and holy wonders.

However, despite the number of tourist sites in and around Madaba, the majority of visitors come only on organised day trips, which do little to benefit local communities. The Madaba Tourism Development Association is working to change this. A pilot project gives visitors the chance to visit family farms to help pick olives or grapes and share a meal of local produce. There are also plans to take visitors by donkey into a beautiful part of the countryside that has a significant number of dolmens – large standing stone burial chambers dating from the Bronze Age.

What you can do
Read up in detail about Bedouin culture and sites before you go, do opt for excursions if you are travelling with a responsible tourism operator and remember that you are walking through some of the most precious archaeological sites in the world. And ask your tour operator about getting off the beaten path at Madaba.

Wildlife & environment in Jordan

Camels & creature comforts

Working animals have long been part of life in Jordan, with the Bedouin, traditionally desert nomads, having used camels for transportation and milk for generations. With the growth of tourism, camels are now being used for desert adventures or carrying tourists around Petra. Donkeys are also used, although there is careful licensing in place, monitoring who can actually bring animals inside Petra for this purpose.

The US based animal welfare organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has raised awareness of cruelty towards both camels and donkeys at Petra, with some handlers beating them hard, giving them overly heavy loads to carry and leaving them undernourished or starved of water. You can see their video below for more details.

PETA successfully lobbied the Jordanian government to introduce electric motorised vehicles to transport tourists around Petra, replacing animals, but mules and donkeys must still make the arduous trek up the Monastery steps many times a day. Although we do not promote a ban of working animals in Petra, we do agree with PETA that current working conditions are unacceptable, and animal welfare regulations must be established and rigorously enforced in order to safeguard the wellbeing of animals.

This is the philosophy of SPANA, another animal welfare organisation on the ground. It has been in existence since 1989, specialises in protecting working animals, and treats almost 4,000 of them in Jordan each year. Such animals are seen as hardy, working ones, so SPANA works tirelessly to re-educate local people and, in particular, young people, as to how they can treat the animals with greater care. They run a veterinary clinic at Wadi Al Seer as well as clinics that travel out to remote communities. They also distribute nosebands and head collars to give extra creature comforts. Their education work is vital in changing the mindset so that in the future animals are not mistreated in this way.

Dr Ghazi Mustafa, SPANA’s Jordan director and vet, says: “Animals in Jordan suffer from a variety of different problems; mostly ill-treatment due to ignorance. Educating owners and the younger generation is the key to changing the future for animals in Jordan to ensure they are treated with kindness and well looked after.”

What you can do
If you see an animal being mistreated always say no to your guide, tell your tour operator and video or photograph it if possible. You can then share that information with SPANA. Please do also donate to SPANA which does incredible work at a local level.

Water worries

Jordan suffers from a severe case of water scarcity. Industrial and agricultural growth, population increase and climate change, are all exacerbating the issue. And it’s not only the water coming out of the taps that’s at issue. The Dead Sea is shrinking as the water evaporates in the heat and isn’t replaced fast enough by freshwater. When floating in the lake, you’ll very clearly see a ring around the rock indicating just how far the water level has fallen.

Water usage in the Jordan Valley is a major source of political strife in the region between countries including Jordan, Syria, Israel, Lebanon and the State of Palestine. A long-mooted project to pipe water from the Red Sea, which would have helped ease Jordan’s water shortages as well as replenish the Dead Sea, was finally abandoned in 2021 due to cost concerns.

What you can do
Naturally, whether you’ve spent the day wandering the markets in Amman or trekking through a desert canyon, you’ll want to wash the dust off. But aim for a quick shower rather than a long soak, keeping in mind that many Jordanians do not have access to a regular, reliable source of clean water, while the situation is even worse for refugees seeking shelter here. The less water you use from the taps, the more there is to go around.

Protecting coral & coast

There is a lot of emphasis on protecting the desert wilderness of Jordan but do also remember that its 27km coastline on the Red Sea is precious too. Around 7km of it is officially protected by its Aqaba Marine Park designation, which includes five beaches plus 21 dive sites in one of the world’s most northerly coral reefs. Although this reef has suffered some damage, it has fared better than several other Red Sea sites, and an ongoing project is developing artificial reefs.

One of the most important conservation measures was to ‘zone’ the park. This means that there are different areas assigned for leisure and glass bottomed boats, swimming, diving and research. The research areas are only open to park staff, keeping them as pristine and undisturbed as possible. The Marine Park Science Station also has specialists in various disciplines of marine biology and ecology that carry out ongoing research.

What you can do
Aqaba is still under pressure from degradation so please do your bit to leave no trace at all after your time at the beach, wear marine friendly cosmetics or sun creams, and if you are diving or snorkelling, don’t touch the coral or remove anything from the seabed or seashore. Unless it is litter, of course. Read our responsible scuba diving guide for more details.

Responsible tourism tips in Jordan

Shop carefully. The most irresponsible thing you can buy is authentic ancient artefacts, because there is a risk that they have been stolen from protected sites, and they are illegal. Always refuse these if offered. The same goes for rock fragments. Eating in public during Ramadan is not prohibited, but do try and restrict this anyway out of respect to practising Muslims. Dress considerately and keep your shoulders and legs covered at all times. If you are hiking, be a responsible walker by staying well hydrated. Avoid plastic bottles by bringing your own self-filtering water bottle. A lot of shops still use plastic bags in Jordan for purchases and they are now a litter problem, so please do bring your own reusable bag. At mealtimes, you are expected to sit beside someone of the same gender. Eating with your hands is common, but as with all Muslim countries, you must do so with your right hand only. Always wash your hands both before and after the meal, as it is common to pass people food with your hands. Public displays of affection are frowned upon in Jordan. And although LGBTQ+ relationships are legal, they arenít exactly flying rainbow flags from their windows yet, so couples are advised to act discreetly. Smoking is still a big part of the culture in Jordan so although you might not want to partake, be prepared for some clouds of nicotine. Also, just about every cafť has an argeeleh or hookah for smoking, with every flavour under the sun. Food is core to Jordanian hospitality and refusing it is seen as rude. Do your best to tuck in if you can. Not surprisingly, Israel and Palestine is a sensitive issue and there are many Palestinians living in Jordan. Tread carefully with your views on this one.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Pocholo Calapre] [Bedouin heritage: Jorge Fernandez Salas] [Camels & creature comforts: Juanma Clemente-Alloza]