Responsible tourism in the Middle East

Responsible tourism in the Middle East has undoubtedly has positive impacts on economies and local lifestyles, with some of the income being used to preserve the regionís great ancient sites and natural resources. It can also offer less tangible benefits. Simply choosing to visit the Middle East and engaging with the people can bridge a cultural gap and lead to a breakdown of stereotypes on both sides.

However, the Middle Eastern environment is increasingly under threat due to climate change and industrialisation, so itís important that tourism is managed with an eye both on the natural world and on local populations; and there are plenty of issues that you should be aware of before visiting, from pollution to inequitable access to water, to the displacement of local people.

You should also be mindful of the effect that tourism has on traditional life, with public drunkenness and inappropriate clothing both major no-nos . As well as reading up on cultural dos and don'ts, always try to research the history, current affairs and human rights situation of the countries that youíre visiting.

The Middle East: Wildlife and environment

Water

Water is a massive issue in the Middle East, and the region has suffered several near drought periods. This is due to climate change, a shortage of ground and surface water, over development and a growing population. Even the Dead Sea is receding by one metre per year. Water is also a source of conflict in the region Ė Jordan and Israel have clashed in the past over the waters of the Jordan River, which has been reduced to a trickle, with much of its waters polluted; and Egypt has sparred with Ethiopia and Sudan over a dam it says could endanger its access to the waters of the Nile. Palestinian farming communities and tourism businesses needing access to water in order to survive have often been forced to buy it from Israel at high cost to already impoverished rural communities.

What you can do
Donít stay in vast accommodations with gleaming golf courses and manicured gardens that feed into the inequality of water access in the country. Staying in a locally run guesthouse or small hotel, a homestay or kibbutz, for example, means that you are supporting community run enterprises that are already switched on to the sustainable consumption of water. And adhere to basic common sense, using quick showers instead of baths, turning off taps when brushing teeth, flushing the toilet only when necessary, and so on.

Pollution

Waste disposal is a massive issue across the Middle East with little efforts made towards recycling - and the sheer level of waste has a devastating impact on agriculture, marine environments and freshwater supplies. Urban air pollution is also a concern, with the people of the Gulf States breathing some of the most toxic air on the planet according to international agencies and Cairo often making headlines as one of the worldís most polluted cities, where rates of cancer, asthma and emphysema have shot up due to the levels of smoke, soot and fuel in the air.

What you can do
Many people drink bottled water in the Middle East, despite the tap water quality being excellent in Israel, Iran, Oman and the UAE. However policies on the recycling of plastic are neither widespread, nor coherent. So if you must buy water, buy the biggest size of bottle you can, therefore minimising the amount of plastic you are disposing of.

Marine conservation

Many people enjoy sea turtle watching when in the Middle East, and Oman and Egypt are particular hotspots. Hundreds of green and hawksbill turtles come back year after year to lay their eggs on the beaches of the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea, where their existence has been put at risk predominantly by the overdevelopment of the coastline. There are certain rules to stick to when viewing them. Try to go with an expert wildlife guide, never drive on beaches where they are known to nest, donít use flash photography or bright torches, and don't get any closer than 10m to 15m to any turtle.

If youíre going dolphin watching, ensure your operator is an expert at practising safe dolphin watching and in recognising different kinds of dolphin; the best way to approach them differs according to the species. If you want to swim with dolphins, itís crucial that the time spent with them and the number of swimmers is strictly limited Ė no one should enter the water until the dolphins are at ease. Most importantly, never approach a dolphin, and do not touch them.

People & culture in the Middle East

Nomads & indigenous peoples

Around the world, nomadic and indigenous people are struggling to maintain lifestyles which stretch back centuries, as they clash with the concepts of land ownership and national borders. This is no different in the Middle East. In Iran, for example, the Qashqai Ė a group of nomadic Turkic tribes Ė are losing grazing lands, access to water is becoming more difficult, and younger generations are giving up their traditional lifestyles.

What you can do
The best thing you can do is support their tourist initiatives. Buy souvenirs from artisan businesses and learn more about their lifestyles and traditions, for example by staying in Bedouin camps in Jordan and Oman, or taking a Nubian-run felucca cruise in Egypt Ė allowing them to receive an income as well as giving younger members pride in their culture and lifestyle.

Religion

Religious traditions hold great sway in the Middle East, even in countries such as Israel, which has liberal attitudes towards fashion, sexuality and popular culture. Therefore, itís important to dress appropriately in places of worship as well as in conservative areas. These dress codes apply to men and women, with the rule of thumb being to keep as covered as possible. At holy sites women, be they Muslim, Jewish or Christian, must cover their heads, so travel with a light scarf, that isnít too hot, to use when visiting temples, mosques and other religious places. In Iran, women will have to dress modestly and have their heads covered at all times, while at Israel's Jewish sites, men may also need to cover their heads with a yarmulke cap.

Shabbat
Religious traditions hold great sway in the Middle East, even in countries such as Israel, which has liberal attitudes towards fashion, sexuality and popular culture. Therefore, itís important to dress appropriately in places of worship as well as in conservative areas. These dress codes apply to men and women, with the rule of thumb being to keep as covered as possible. At holy sites women, be they Muslim, Jewish or Christian, must cover their heads, so travel with a light scarf, that isnít too hot, to use when visiting temples, mosques and other religious places. In Iran, women will have to dress modestly and have their heads covered at all times, while at Israel's Jewish sites, men may also need to cover their heads with a yarmulke cap.

Ramadan
Ramadan falls during the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and in some countries life changes dramatically, with the faithful abstaining from food, drink, tobacco and sex during daylight hours. This will, of course, affect your schedule, with many businesses closed, or offering limited hours, though some restaurants in international hotels often remain open.

On the plus side this means that the evenings can be great fun, and you might find yourself invited to late night feasts and parties. As a foreign tourist you wonít be expected to fast yourself, but it would be bad form to eat or drink in front of someone who is; and in some countries you could even be fined for eating in public during the fast. You should also dress more conservatively during this time. Make sure you read up on local laws before you go.

Responsible tourism tips

Staying at a locally owned guesthouse, using local guides and visiting communities away from the main tourist hubs helps to spread the wealth - your money will go much further and will reach those who genuinely need it. Be sensitive in your discussions around politics and religion and read up before you go. It is worth remembering that for many people going to Israel to visit religious sites, the conflicted borders are almost invisible. It is, for them, the Holy Land. Not Israel or Palestine. You should also have the utmost respect when talking about the Holocaust or visiting memorial sites. You should avoid drinking or being openly intimate in public. Using your left hand for greeting, giving or receiving food, or money doesnít go down well in Muslim cultures either, as it is considered unclean. Remember that itís offensive to just barge in and take photos of people without asking first. Learn a couple of words of the local language, and exchange smiles and conversation with local people before you even think of taking your camera out. Scuba diving and snorkelling are very popular in Egypt and Israel, but do ensure to dive and snorkel responsibly to preserve the ecology and beauty of the underwater world. Avoid touching living marine organisms, minimise your disturbance of marine animals and never stand on corals. And please do remember that any products you are wearing on your body get absorbed into the marine environment. Bring environmentally sound products with you and keep the oceans (and wadis) clean.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Marc Veraart] [: Dan Lundberg] [Qashqai nomad sisters: Julia Maudlin] [Bringing the flock in: Julia Maudlin]
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