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Community crusade: with the country's first purpose-built nature academy now open just north of Amman, Jordan is hoping to take socially responsible tourism in the Middle East to new levels.

Sitting cross-legged on a plump cushion, Mohamad Dwekat motions to his new house guests to continue eating. Faced with a sprawling meal of succulent roast chicken and rice, stuffed cucumbers, fresh hummus and soup, and cornered by small mountains of oven-warm taboon--the local flatbread--the three Americans need no second invitation. Here in the village of Orjan, deep in the bountiful Al Ayoun region of Jordan, appetites become heartier of their own accord.

After an afternoon spent exploring Al Ayoun's spectacular scenery, Dwekat's visitors will sleep soundly in beds prepared by his wife Maysoon. Under the gentle tutelage of Dwekat or one of his friends, they will immerse themselves in Jordan's fascinating and ever-hospitable culture. They will play with Dwekat's three children. They may even end up learning Jordanian recipes in the family kitchen.

It's all thanks to sustainable tourism--which is having an increasing impact on the lives of local Jordanians across this conservative country--that home-stay visitors to Orjan invariably end up enjoying their most memorable holiday in years.

'Our aim is for guests to feel as though they are living with their own family in their own home,' says Dwekat in broken English. 'By the end, all our visitors have become friends, regardless of race or religion. Many come back year after year.'

HILLSIDE HOSPITALITY

A 90-minute drive north from Amman, Al Ayoun is a million miles from the heat, traffic and glittering skyscrapers of the Jordanian capital. In a country dominated by desert, this is one of the lushest regions of Jordan, famed for its Mediterranean climate and mouth-watering fruit. Valley floors support orchards of olive, pomegranate, pistachio and fig, while burbling streams are lined with fragrant wild mint. Irrigation channels, aqueducts and ruined mills are all reminders of an Ottoman past.

Founded in 2008 with the help of the Abraham Path Initiative, an American NGO, the Al Ayoun Society--to which Mohamed Dwekat belongs--was one of Jordan's earliest tourism cooperatives. Currently made up of 30 members from Orjan and two neighbouring villages, the society has established a seven-mile trail for tourists to explore and teaches newly joined households how to host overseas visitors.

'At first it was tough to convince local people to take money for their home-stays,' says Mohamad Swalmeh, a member of the Society and former mayor of Al Ayoun, with a smile. According to Jordanian culture we should welcome travellers into our homes without asking anything in return.'

The traditional Arab upbringing is essentially a Masters course in hospitality,' says Amman-based Jon Killpack, whose company, Engaging Cultures, has run olive harvesting tours in Orjan since 2011. The hardest thing we've had to do is to make farmers understand that our clients are really there to engage in hard labour. At first all they wanted to do was sit around the fire with their guests, drinking mint tea and pointing out the highlights of the local landscape.'

EDUCATION FOR THE FUTURE

The Middle East has been relatively slow to leverage the world's burgeoning eco-tourism trend. But while other countries across the region have recently been talking the talk, Jordan has quietly been developing its environmentally-friendly, sustainable tourism from the ground up. Taking the lead has been the country's Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), and its Wild Jordan subsidiary.

Created in 1966 under the patronage of His Majesty the late King Hussein, the RSCN isa non-governmental organisation devoted to the conservation of Jordan's natural environment. Wild Jordan, the NGO's socio-economic development and eco-tourism arm, works to develop viable nature-based businesses for those living in and around RSCN's protected areas. While the RSCN manages many of Jordan's nature reserves, it remains separate from the state, putting it in a unique position when it comes to developing and managing sustainable tourism across the country.

The culmination of the RSCN's long-term efforts is the newly completed Ajloun Nature Academy (ANA), an architectural marvel which sits on the lip of a former quarry opposite the Ajloun Forest Reserve. Opened in 2014, this is the first institution in the Middle East to offer courses in socio-economic development and biodiversity conservation.

One of the targets of the ANA is to train at least 100 people per year to meet demands from the local eco-tourism industry. Disciplines offered include nature guiding, ranger services, search and rescue, field craft and survival skills and eco-lodge management. With sustainable tourism now taking off across the Middle East, demand for Arabic-speaking experts and practitioners in such disciplines is already on the rise.

'Graduates of the ANA are people who will have a detailed knowledge of Jordan's ecology, who can use that knowledge to inspire and engage visitors and to give them a special Jordanian eco-experience,' says Mohammed Zaarour, the RSCN's Director of Strategic Development.

'But we also need to look beyond Jordan,' continues Zaarour. 'We have already assisted neighbouring countries such as Syria and Lebanon with their own projects integrating conservation and socio-economic development. By giving more young people skills that are in demand, this academy benefits sustainable development across the entire Middle East.'

RAISING THE BAR

The RSCN believes grassroots tourism is the best way to protect Jordan's endangered ecosystems.

'In most of the world, it is poverty and the aspirations of ordinary people to live a better material life that is driving nature into extinction,' says Mohammed Zaarour. 'Our challenge in the RSCN is to make nature relevant to the lives of Jordanian people. We need to transform the perception of nature from something of low value into an economic and social asset.'

A short drive from Orjan, the Ajloun Forest Reserve is one of the RSCN's latest projects, with a clutch of eco-friendly wooden cabins nestling amongst stands of carob, oak and strawberry trees. The rich greenery makes the reserve a popular spot for picnickers and hikers, especially in the spring when the reserve is carpeted with a panoply of wild flowers.

Trees have long been the lifeblood of the people of the Al Ayoun region, who use them for wood, medicine and food. Making use of this natural bounty, the RSCN has established several local initiatives to help boost the livelihoods of women in and around Orjan and Ajloun.

Located within the Ajloun Forest Reserve, the Orjan Soap House sees local women craft soap from 100 per cent locally sourced olive oil. Herbs and flowers are incorporated to create soap with soothing and healing properties. The delicately fragranced bars are then sold in the reserve's shop and in other Wild Jordan outlets across the country.

'When the RSCN set up the Soap House in Orjan, it raised our community's awareness of the importance of protecting nature, which we depend on to survive,' says Reema Hamzat Lem Hamzeh, a 40-year-old mother of three who started working at the house in 2007. 'We have limited resources and opportunities in Al Ayoun. The RSCN has taught us to make the most of what we have.'

It's a similar story at the Orjan Biscuit House, where a small team of local women bake organic biscuits under the RSCN's Tasali brand for sale across Jordan. The women living in the Jordanian countryside are naturally resourceful,' says Anwar Ahmad, who oversees production at the Biscuit House. 'The RSCN has given us the opportunity and confidence to put that resourcefulness to good use.'

OASIS OF HOPE

Drive along a strip of sun-baked tarmac eastward from Amman and you eventually come to Azraq, an oasis town encircled by parched, stony wasteland. This once fertile network of pools, reeds and rushes now acts as a refuelling stop for truckers en route to Iraq or Saudi Arabia, hitting the headlines recently as the site of a Syrian refugee camp and nearby air base.

Azraq has long been an Important settlement in Jordan's remote Eastern Desert. Archaeologists believe it was one of the first Palaeolithic sites of human settlement, while the nearby Azraq Castle was an important base for the legendary TE Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) and his Arab counterpart, Sharif Hussein bin AN, during the Great Arab Revolt of 1916-1918. The area is now home to a cosmopolitan mix of Bedouin, Arab, Druze and Chechen people.

Despite its illustrious history, today Azraq is in a bad way. Thanks to Amman's insatiable appetite for water, the life-giving pools of the oasis--and the attendant wildlife--have all but disappeared. This, coupled with the decimation of the local salt industry, means a large percentage of the town's population struggles to find work. Younger jobseekers are increasingly relocating to the Jordanian capital.

Azraq may never be the verdant utopia it once was, but the RSCN is nevertheless attempting to reverse the town's decline. As the NGO's efforts to boost water levels and fish stocks have borne fruit, so birdlife has slowly returned, with newly constructed boardwalks and hides catering to growing numbers of ornithologists and nature lovers. A short walk from the restored pools at Azraq, the RSCN's popular Azraq Lodge--once a British field hospital--opened Its doors in 2006. Within the property, which is run by town residents, a cluster of handicraft workshops now house a team of local women producing painted ostrich eggs, textiles, toys, clothing and other handicrafts for sale.

Egg painter Alia Alma'az supervises a team of five girls. There are simply no other jobs in Azraq,' she explains. 'This is a safe environment where women can come to work and contribute much needed money to their family's income.'

Alma'az's friend, Hend Al Huwaytat, has been making children's toys at Azraq for two years. The monthly income I earn here is not high, but it really does help,' she says. 'I am using it to put myself through university. The project here has really helped a lot of women support their families, progress their careers and remain in Azraq when others are leaving.'

A VILLAGE REBORN

By late afternoon Wadi Dana presents a spectacle of biblical proportions. A huge cleft in the earth, its soaring walls bathe in the sun's flaxen rays, as rock formations on the floor of the distant Great Rift Valley--one of the lowest places on Earth shimmer in the haze. People have made their home here since the dawn of civilisation, and it's not hard to see why.

Perched high at one end of Wadi Dana, the residents enjoy one of the most majestic views in the entire Middle East. An ancient irrigation system transports water from nearby springs, nourishing a communal garden and acres of farmland. Yet today many of the village's stone houses lie empty, their rough-hewn walls and flat roofs gently crumbling in the arid climate.

By the early 1990s Dana was in danger of disappearing altogether, as villagers abandoned homes and overgrazed land in search of a better life in Jordan's towns and cities. Local species such as ibex and mountain gazelle had been hunted to the edge of extinction.

Then the RSCN stepped in and transformed Dana into one of the Middle East's most impressive sustainable tourism success stories. The NGO established 'wilderness' regions and semi-intensive use areas where tourism could be introduced, built a guesthouse and founded a scientific research station. Almost all the jobs generated were given to local villagers. Today tourism continues to breathe new life into Dana, as Jordanians return to repair homes and set up hotels. With fantastic hiking opportunities, the area's dramatic scenery and burgeoning wildlife--which includes wolf, striped hyena and jackal, as well as ibex and gazelle--has made the reserve a must-see on any Jordanian itinerary.

Increasing revenue from tourism has also helped the RSCN support local livelihoods. Following the restoration of a reliable water supply, a group of women now produces jam for sale from fruit grown in nearby orchards. Also sold in the Dana Reserve shop are locally grown herbs and silver jewellery fashioned In a workshop attached to the guesthouse.

'Working here at Dana has raised my family's standard of living and helped me send my children to school,' says Samyah Khawaldeh, who has been creating eye-catching copper, silver and bronze jewellery in the reserve workshop for the last 15 years. 'I wouldn't say life is easy, but a regular salary has definitely made a huge difference.'

HELPING PEOPLE

From the olive groves of Ajloun to the tectonic drama of Dana, low-impact, sensitively developed sustainable tourism is now changing Jordanian people's lives and the environment In which they live for the better. The RSCN has grown Into one of the Middle East's most passionate and effective green lobbies, campaigning for the preservation of the country's unique and increasingly pressurised ecosystems.

'The RSCN's motto Is helping nature to help people,' says Lalla Malallah, the NGO's Flead of Socio-economic Development. 'It's a simple philosophy but it really works.' With the Ajloun Nature Academy taking off, more assistance Is In the pipeline.

CO-ORDINATES JORDAN

When to go

Spring is generally the best time to visit Jordan, with warm but not stifling temperatures, although the rain generally tends to dry out by April In summer months, temperatures can reach as high as 40[degrees]C. Be sure to check with the FCO for up to date travel advisories for the region.

Getting there

British Airways (ba.com) and Royal Jordanian (rj.com) both operate daily direct flights from London Heathrow to Amman from approximately 300 [pounds sterling] to 400 [pounds sterling] per person. Flight time is five to six hours. Watch out for times of Islamic holidays such as Eid al-Fitr or Hajj when airlines tend to raise their prices and tickets are harder to come by due to mass bookings.

More information

The Al Ayoun Society: facebookxom/alayounsociety; Wild Jordan: wildjordancenter.com; The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature: www.rscn.org.jo
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Title Annotation:TRAVEL: Jordan
Comment:Community crusade: with the country's first purpose-built nature academy now open just north of Amman, Jordan is hoping to take socially responsible tourism in the Middle East to new levels.(TRAVEL: Jordan)
Author:Allen, Daniel
Publication:Geographical
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:7JORD
Date:Jun 1, 2016
Words:2277
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