Dispatch, Jordan: A meaningful map

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Wildflowers along the Jordan Trail.
Wildflowers along the Jordan Trail. © TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann is in Jordan with a group of travel industry professionals on a trip organized by the Jordan Tourism Board and Tourism Cares. This is his first report on the delegation's exploration of tourism-related social enterprises run by local communities.

Money and passion are nonexclusive paths that influence career choices, and I'd bet that there's a higher percentage of travel industry professionals weighted toward the "passion" side of the equation than would be found among, say, executives in banking and insurance (to say nothing of spackle manufacturers).

Still, there's an inherent conflict faced by those who hope to profit by sharing their love and knowledge of foreign cultures, landscapes and communities. It's an inescapable fact that promoting tourism and increasing the number of visitors can undermine the very elements that make a destination attractive in the first place, and negatively impact the lives of those who live in and near popular leisure sites.

The industry nonprofit Tourism Cares seeks not just a reasonable balance between business goals and conservation, but actively supports ways in which travel and tourism can be used to improve destinations, travelers' experiences and the lives of citizens in host countries. Last year, the U.S.-based group asked for proposals from destinations wanting to showcase local social enterprises that demonstrate what can be done in this regard. South Africa, Paris, Cuba, Greece, Jordan and Ecuador had bid for the opportunity to welcome a delegation from Tourism Cares.

Ultimately, Jordan was chosen, and today about 70 industry representatives from travel agencies, tour operations, airlines, riverboat lines, insurance companies, nonprofits, associations and even the head of travel sales for Google conferred at the Dead Sea Marriott Resort. Jordan's tourism minister, Lina Annab, said in her welcoming remarks that the group's presence demonstrates that "doing good is not bound by geography. Change will occur only after people with similar values agree that change can be made."

During the five-day trip, the group is traveling through the country and visiting social enterprises that directly benefit travelers and locally owned businesses, including those outside traditional popular tourist areas. Twelve such enterprises, from an ecolodge to a center where Syrian women refugees create and sell crafts, appear on a "meaningful travel map of Jordan," created by the Jordan Tourism Board and Tourism Cares.

The map also directs viewers to U.S. travel agents who have completed Jordan's certification program.

The delegation to Jordan has been divided into three tracks, and the one I'm in focuses on environment and community. On the first morning of the trip, we traveled north from the capital Amman to Ajloun, which attracts tourists wanting to visit a 12th century Muslim castle on a hilltop. Nearby is a much newer point of interest: the two-month-old Summaga Cafe, a restaurant and shop run by local women, which features the produce of a nearby cooperative farm producing organic olive oil, honey, free range eggs and other products.

Ajloun is also included in another project, one that traverses the entire meaningful map: the Jordan Trail, a 400-mile walking tour that has been carefully plotted from a point near the Syrian border in the north to the Saudi border in the south. (To make sure a hiker stays on track, GPS coordinates can be downloaded to phones, and there are directional indicators painted on rocks and fences.) Those who trek it spend their money in local communities throughout the country.

Travel writer Andrew Evans, who hiked the trail last year and wrote about the experience for National Geographic, said that while some countries build theme parks to attract visitors, Jordan has, by creating the trail, made the country itself a featured attraction.

From the cafe, our group hiked south for a couple of hours. About 30 minutes in, Bashir Daoud, the project's general manager, told the group, "Congratulations! You have finished one mile. Only 399 to go."

At a press conference attended primarily by Jordanian national media, Jordan Tourism Board managing director Abed al Razzaq Arabiyat said he believed that "the tourism sector will save the Jordanian economy."

Muna Haddad, pictured, founder and managing director of Baraka, an initiative that has launched two clusters of local tourism experiences and businesses in Jordan (and plans more), stressed that places on the meaningful travel map "are not charities, but businesses that offer excellent programs. Travelers should ask, 'Where is my money going?' The answer for these is: To the local community."

© TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

Disclosure: Arnie Weissmann is on the Tourism Cares board of directors.

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