For Earth Day 2022, we wanted to share some of our thoughts on responsible and eco-aware traveling while visiting the desert of Wadi Rum. For us, preserving the pristine beauty of our desert home is crucial. Responsible and sustainable tourism is all about respect, both for the indigenous and their culture, and for the desert environment as a whole.
Nomadic life: original eco-friendly traveling
This desert has been inhabited since prehistoric times, as the thousands of petroglyphs show. For generations it has been the home predominantly of the Zalabieh tribe of bedouin (of which we are part). The progenitor arrived here from the area of Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia and settled here because it felt like home to him, according to his descendants. Nomadic families in this area maintained what we would now call a “low-carbon footprint” well into the 1980s. They traveled by camel, lived in tents, grazed flocks of goats and sheep, and managed without electricity or infrastructure, were very in tune with their environment. They were able to sustain themselves on what the natural environment provided. The nomads are the indigenous. But with the exception of a few hundred who still live the old ways they have moved out of the tents and open spaces and into concrete homes, clustered together.
“hunting, woody fuel collection and pastoral grazing by local communities… these are currently thought to be within sustainable limits”Wadi Rum Protected Area 2020 Conservation Outlook Assessment
Wadi Rum is a protected site
Most of Wadi Rum is inside a UNESCO mixed “cultural and natural” protected area since 1997. The small entrance fee (5JOD) contributes to the preservation of the site. (Note: If you aren’t getting an entry ticket, you are not really staying in Wadi Rum.) There are many luxury camps on the fringe of the desert near the highway or near the village of Diseh.
Since the protection of the site by the Jordanian government and then by UNESCO, travel and tourism have changed the life of the bedouin in some seemingly permanent ways. There are more trucks and fewer camels. Most bedouin now live in the village where there is a more modern way of life and education. The influx of tourists also inevitably impacts the fragile desert ecosystem.
Some travelers want a do-it-yourself experience and wish to rent a 4×4 to explore on their own. There are some arguments against this. First, there are safety factors such as getting lost, stuck in the sand, truck breaking down in an area with no cell signal, etc. But sustainable tourism must equitably benefit the local Bedouin communities. Also, a recent outlook assessment (2020) mentions the problem of “self-guided tourists causing vegetation damage also threatening the integrity of the site.”
To respect the people and the environment here in Wadi Rum here are just a few things one can do:
1 Support authentic camps which benefit the locals and honor their traditions by choosing more experiential tours and traditional accommodation. Before tourism got underway, the local bedouin used to extend their hospitality to visitors in their own desert tents. Pressure from social media and high expectations from foreign tourists has made more and more permanent camps. Note that generators are technically illegal inside the protected area, so choose camps that use solar electricity. (like ours!)
2 Even light is pollution when you are in a naturally dark-sky area where people come to stargaze. Camps with bright lights make this impossible. Choose camps with minimized outdoor lighting.
3 Surely it goes with out saying, but we will say it: Leave no trace behind. Litter and garbage is a problem throughout Jordan. Please don’t toss any litter in the desert. There is so little water and humidity that waste takes much longer than usual to decompose. If you bury it under the sand the wind will eventually expose it.
4 Be vigilant to conserve water. (No 30 minute showers!) Don’t choose hotel-camps that have swimming pools in one of the most water poor countries on the planet, and especially not in a desert. For water fun, go to Aqaba where there is a beach only an hour away. Water is expensive and difficult to truck into the desert. Don’t flush anything into the toilets because the infrastructure cannot handle it. (Note: This is not just in Wadi Rum, this is throughout Jordan.)
5 Bring your own amenities. At our camp we have showers but we don’t provide toiletries or towels. It’s actually a more environmentally responsible way to do it.
6 Choose hiking and responsible camel tours rather than long days in a 4×4. The desert tracks may be photoshopped out of a lot of Insta-pics, but you’ll see them in the high-traffic areas. Going to the less visited parts of the desert can help with this as well, but even this is controversial as more people in those areas will eventually cause the same problems.
7 Have a real connection to nature by being nature’s guest. Try bivouac camping rather than bubble glamping. You see the stars better when you are not looking through plastic, and it has much less impact on the environment.
8 Travel more slowly and spend more time in each place. Many people try to see everything in Jordan in one week. It is a lot of driving and a lot of stress. Why not just slow down and spend a few days in each spot?
Surely there are more things we can do, and our guests can do, to be practice eco-friendly traveling and to reduce our impact in the desert. But we want to encourage everyone to keep trying, do our best to be mindful of the issues, and as the Jordanians say “slowly, slowly” we will have a good effect for the long term.