The Dead Sea, Jordan — Inspired by the initiatives of the country’s Royal Family — Queen Noor is Patron of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature and has been engaged with the development of the National Environment Strategy (1.8MB PDF) — Jordan has a robust and progressive policy to restore, conserve, and protect its environment.
“A rapidly expanding population, industrial pollution, wildlife hunting and habitat loss due to development have taken a toll on Jordan’s wildlife population,” says a Jordan Government website. “Jordan’s absorption of hundreds of thousands of people since 1948 has resulted in the over-exploitation of many of its natural resources, and the country’s severe shortage of water has led to the draining of underwater aquifers and damage to the Azraq Oasis,” the website adds.
Jordan has started reversing environmental decline, the government website goes on to say. “A true foundation of environmental protection requires awareness upon the part of the population, and a number of governmental and non-governmental organizations are actively involved in educating the populace about environmental issues. Jordan’s Ministry of Education is also introducing new literature into the government schools’ curriculum to promote awareness of environmental issues among the young students.”
Unlike some of its oil-rich neighbors, Jordan has limited financial resources to buy solutions. If its six million people can figure out how to pull together to live sustainably in a depleted environment, there could be lessons for much of the rest of the world.
On a recent visit to the Middle East country, hosted by the Jordanian Tourism Board, I was shown some examples of how the tourism industry is also trying to be sustainable and respectful of the environment, while doing as much as possible to create local employment. Two worth sharing: Jordan’s first and only “true ecolodge” that tries to leave a minimal footprint on its desert ecosystem, and a visionary hotelier whose genuine passion for nature has led him to win international recognition for making his Swiss company’s five Jordanian resorts and hotels models of sustainability.
The 120-square-mile Dana Biosphere Reserve is Jordan’s largest nature protected area. The seemingly dry and empty place is home to fascinating geology: mountains, desert, and wadis (canyons) cut into limestone, sandstone and granite in a variety of vibrant earth colors. More than 800 plant species can be found within the sanctuary, three of which are endemic, according to the reserve’s website. Some 449 different animals have been recorded, including the sand cat, Syrian wolf, lesser kestrel, and spiny-tailed lizard. The reserve is also part of the Dana Important Bird Area (IBA) designated by BirdLife International. Birdlife estimates as many as 250,000 raptors migrate through the area every spring. Important residents include vultures, eagles, owls, sandgrouse, larks, warblers, and birds with names like Dead Sea sparrow and desert wheateater. Dana is also home to several Bedouin villages and communities, many of whom make a living from ecotourism.
In Jordan’s Dana Biosphere Reserve, where the mountains meet the desert, is an extraordinary hotel, the Feynan Ecolodge. Nabil Tarazi is the founder and managing director of Ecohotels, the company that runs the lodge. He met our group on the road to Feynan just as the sun was slipping under the horizon.
After serving each of us a small cup of sweet tea to sip while we enjoyed the sunset from a small hill, Tarazi explained the philosophy behind his hotel. What’s special about the Dana Biosphere Reserve, Tarazi said, is its range of ecological zones. The transition from desert to the mountains about a mile above sea level introduces completely different fauna and flora, he explained.
The reserve is run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, the NGO supported by Queen Noor and mandated by the government to manage all nature reserves in Jordan. “What’s unique about Jordan is that it’s an NGO that operates nature reserves, and not the government,” Tarazi said in the video interview on this page.
The Royal Society pioneered ecotourism in Jordan in the mid-1990s, Tarazi said, “bringing the tourists to look at the beauty of what Jordan has to offer, and at the same time generating income for conservation and provide opportunities for the local communities.”
Feynan is one of the best examples of ecotourism in Jordan, according to Tarazi. It is the one and only true ecolodge in the country, he added. “The lodge was built in 2005. It employs 26 people, all of them from the local communities.”
“Extremely Green” Credentials
Feynan’s “green credentials” are “extremely green,” Tarazi said. “We are not connected to the grid, we are not connected to any utilities. All the electricity that we generate is done using the sun, via solar panels on the hotel roof.” The solar-generated energy is used sparingly, only for the bathrooms, kitchens, and offices, he said. “Aside from that, there’s no electricity, it is all candle-lit, and [the candles] are made on site by women from the local community.”
Feynan Ecolodge was named one of the world’s top desert ecolodges by National Geographic Adventure Magazine. The hotel is located in Wadi Araba, a short ride on Bedouin transport along a rugged dirt track from the Dead Sea Highway, and about three hours by road from Amman or 90 minutes from Petra.
“We recycle most of our waste and we compost our food waste, turning it into fertilizer we use in our herb garden,” Tarazi said. “We’ve eliminated plastic bottles completely from guest rooms. Instead of having plastic, that people drink from and throw away afterwards, we have clay jars that are made by the local community, disinfected every day and filled with mineral water — so from that process we eliminate about 10,000 plastic bottles from the environment every year.”
To heat the hotel in winter, the lodge burns jift, a byproduct of olive oil made into long-burning cakes of pits and skins of the pressed fruit. It’s renewable and sustainable, and it adds value to Jordan’s olive industry, said to be the 8th largest in the world. “With [jift], we eliminate the need to burn 3 tons of wood,” Tarazi said.
The Feynan Experience
Why do tourists come to Feynan Ecolodge? “They come for the experience,” Tarazi said. “You’ve got beautiful nature around you. You’ve got history and archaeology that goes back to the neolithic ages, and you’ve got beautiful canyons for people to go and hike in. When people come here, they come for a beautiful experience, instead of coming just to stay in a lodge.”
I can confirm that the experience of the lodge is itself unique and quite pleasant. The rooms and facilities are wonderfully lit by candlelight and lamps and eating the delicious local fruits and vegetables under the desert sky blazing with stars is not soon forgotten.
After being woken in the morning gloom by a loud desert bird under my balcony, I watched the sun rising opposite a setting full moon, gilding the lodge and the surrounding mountains with a fiery orange reflection of the desert rock. Goats from nearby Bedouin encampments sauntered past, and for a moment I imagined that this scene had played out on this spot every day for thousands of years.
On the evening we arrived at Feynan Ecolodge, I had the opportunity to walk for half an hour along the desert dirt track illuminated by the rising moon. Tarazi expressed disappointment that the brightness of the moon was obliterating the spectacular show of stars. I was impressed by the luminous glow of the desert under the massive moon, and some hours later I got to enjoy the stars anyway, lying on my back on a comfortable bed pad on the hotel roof terrace while our Bedouin guide told me about the long history of the tribes of the region.
But before the magic of the stars, I walked across the moonlit desert and conversed with Suleiman Amareen, one of Feynan’s “eco-guides,” another Bedouin who grew up in the area.
Amareen is college educated and could get a job in a city, but he prefers to work at Feynan, to be near his family and in the place he knows and loves. His brother also works for the hotel and his father is a contract driver, one of the many Bedouin hired to transport guests and supplies across the desert in their own vehicles. The family regularly welcomes hotel guests to their encampment, where tea and coffee is served in a traditional nomad tent and visitors may learn about Bedouin culture, traditions, and join a vigorous debate about contemporary politics in the region and the world. (Related: Coffee With the Bedouins.)
The Bond Between Lodge and Community
There is a strong bond between the lodge and the local community, Amareen told me the next day, in the video posted on this page. “For example, the transportation for the lodge. The lodge does not have cars, so we call Bedouin drivers to take the tourists,” he said. The traditional Bedouin bread we enjoyed with our dinner and breakfast is made by local women, as are the candles that illuminate the rooms. All the hotel staff are local, he added.
In total some 80 families — a total of 400 people — benefit from Feynan Ecolodge, according to Amareen. “The lodge is a good neighbor,” he said.
Also staying at Feynan Ecolodge while we were there was Paul Burtenshaw, a PhD researcher at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London. I met Burtenshaw over breakfast and was fascinated to learn that he was investigating how the archaeology and tourism of the region could work together “in the same way that the ecolodge that the Royal Society pioneered for ecotourism [works with] the natural landscape.”
This whole region is the first place in the world where people are “coming together and figuring out how to live together in larger numbers.”
The area is most famous for its beautiful landscape and the ecology and flora and fauna, Burtenshaw told me in the video interview on this page. But the area is also extremely important for archaeology. There are neolithic sites representing where people for the first time were living in large communities, “coming together and figuring out how to live together in larger numbers,” he said. “So they’re building the first structures, the first buildings, coming together in settlements, and having the origins of agriculture. This whole region is the first place in the world where people are doing that, and here in Feynan we’ve got a few very good sites that show you that process … and the transition, technologies and progress people are making at that time … about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.”
Ancient Copper Mines
The other big story archaeological story at Feynan is copper production, Burtenshaw said. The geology of the region contains a lot of copper and the mining and production of the copper began in the early Bronze Age. The copper was mined, smelted and traded to communities to the north, south and east, he explained.
“Here in this landscape you’ve got the mines, big copper processing plants, and the settlements that people created to exploit this resource. So while this area is famous for its natural beauty, in the past it was a large industrial landscape, huge areas of people using furnaces, smelting copper, and especially in the Iron Age, in the Roman-Byzantine period, huge production areas.”
In one area, mentioned in the Bible, Christian slaves were used in the copper production process, Burtenshaw added. “Since then it has become a bit of a pilgrimage site … people visiting those sites and where those Christians are buried,” he said.
Burtenshaw is working with archaeologists to see how what is known and can be seen about the archaeology can be visited by tourists, using Feynan Ecolodge and the local guides to create further benefits for the local community.
Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea
With its traditional village architecture set in a 20-acre oasis on the northern shore of the Dead Sea, 1,300 feet below sea level, the Mövenpick Resort & Spa is in an exotic and extremely fragile setting. The lush gardens are made and nurtured by humans, providing much needed shade to guests and what seems to be thousands of birds. The trees and shrubs also provide nocturnal shelter for the birds, to judge from the boisterous avian chorus at sunset. It’s as if the birds are celebrating the end of another day of searing heat at the lowest place on Earth.
As a tourist in Jordan, I was struck by how water is available for swimming, showering and the general comfort of hotel guests, especially when our tour guide, a resident of the country’s capital, Amman, told us that his family had to make one big tank of water last a week. We heard repeatedly during our visit that Jordan’s most pressing environmental problem is a shortage of water.
So how does Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea relate to its natural environment, I asked Bruno Huber, general manager and regional manager of Mövenpick’s five hotels in Jordan. We were at a dinner at his Dead Sea resort and I taped his answers by candlelight for the video interview on this page.
Mövenpick focuses on three areas of sustainability, Huber told me. “On one side is environment protection, two is involvement [with] the community and buying from the community, giving them chances, and the third is whatever concerns human resources.”
The hotel group also tries to help Jordan promote its cultural heritage. Jordan being one of the only countries, if not the only country, in the Middle East with a nature reserve program, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, the country has people living in the preserves and making a living from conservation and the tourism around it, Huber explained. The hotel group buys all its gifts from those people, or it works with them to make the gifts. This includes all the soaps and shampoos in the guest rooms and hotel shops, all produced by local women using local materials.
Considered by many to be a true wonder of nature, the Dead Sea has for thousands of years had a reputation for the healing powers of its minerals and waters. Sitting in the lowest depression on Earth, more than 1,300 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is fed by a number of rivers above and below ground. The lake is landlocked, with no drainage to the ocean. Evaporation over many thousands of years has left a thick soup of salts and minerals. But the level of the Dead Sea is dropping by three feet a year, essentially because almost all the water from its main source, the Jordan River, has been diverted for human needs by Syria, Israel and Jordan. There is much discussion about how the Dead Sea can be topped up to prevent it from evaporating to a puddle, including a “Red to Dead” proposal to pump seawater overland from the Red Sea. The Dead Sea is not quite as lifeless as its name implies. Dozens of giant craters spewing fresh water and brimming with bacteria were found recently at the bottom of the Dead Sea, National Geographic News reported in September, 2011.
On the environment side, Huber said, “the entire water cycle is looked at carefully.” Whatever gray water (from guest showers, laundry, and so on) is produced by the hotel at the Dead Sea, for example, goes to the property’s large gardens. “It is completely recycled by ourselves” through a waste water treatment plant and a system of valves and filters that also regulates water to the guest rooms.
The Dead Sea resort uses solar energy and all lamps in the hotel use minimal energy wherever appropriate, Huber said. The hotel company has developed an environment sustainability index “where we look at our community work, our environment work, and at our human resources-related work, where we give equal opportunities” to female employees, he said. (Huber is proud of the fact that his company workforce is 10 percent female vs. 4 percent for the average in Jordan’s hotel sector.)
All five Mövenpick hotels in Jordan compete for an award based on their performance against the company’s sustainability index.
In 2011 all five of the company’s hotels in Jordan received Green Globe Certification, ranking highest in the world for sustainability as measured by the program, according to Huber. Green Globe Certification is the travel and tourism industries’ world wide certification label for sustainable management and operations. Hotels in 83 countries are audited and measured in more than 350 norms and standards, including energy usage, water consumption, waste management, and employee training.
I’m guessing that in an ecologically sensitive region like the Dead Sea, the Mövenpick resort does not have a zero footprint on the environment, I told Huber. “But on the other hand the company does try to do a lot for the local community,” I added.
“Zero footprint at this moment is not possible in an environment like Jordan,” Huber agreed. “We are working on it.”
Green Hotelier of the Year
A few weeks after I interviewed Bruno Huber at his Dead Sea Resort, he was named Green Hotelier of the Year 2011 at the Hotelier Middle East Awards, held in Dubai. According to HotelierMiddleEast.com, judges said Huber’s genuine love for nature and the environment had led him to become a pioneer in a wide range of green initiatives, producing results that spoke for themselves. “Under Bruno’s leadership, the five Mövenpick Hotels and Resorts in Jordan became the first hotels in the Middle East to achieve Green Globe Certification,” the judges said.
David Braun visited Jordan with a delegation of North American bloggers hosted by the Jordan Tourism Board.
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.