Responsible tourism in Jordan

Travel right in Jordan

Tourism numbers had dropped in Jordan as travelers steered clear of the Middle East, but in the last couple of years it has recovered well, and Jordanians are welcoming visitors back to discover their history, heritage and humbling landscapes. Jordan is, compared with many countries, very keen to promote responsible tourism, not only culturally but also in terms of protecting its natural heritage, such as Wadi Rum desert wilderness and Aqaba Marine Park along the Red Sea. It still has a way to go, however, and as tourists we can play our part in making it even more responsible.

People & culture in Jordan


The Bedouin heritage

Bedouin Tofik Abdullah:* "In the village we don’t have any more land to build on. We’ve tried talking with the government to ask for more land, but they say it isn’t allowed. I think there are more than 700 families who don’t have houses and are living in cramped conditions with their parents."
Petra was constructed in the 3rd century BCE and is believed to have been the capital city and trading hub of the Nabataean Kingdom. The Nabataeans were one of several Bedouin tribes that lived and wandered around the Arabian Desert and who settled in cave dwellings in this magnificent city, carved into the sandstone rocks and cliff faces of the slope of Jabal Al-Madbah. In 1985, the Bedouin were resettled from their ancient home as part of the process to have it designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These Bedouin are known as Bidoul, Al B'doul or Petra Bedouin and they now live in six communities in the region, the largest being Wadi Musa. All are very dependent on tourism, however, and even though you may feel frustrated by the fact that many people are touting for business, do please remember that you are in a privileged position to be able to explore their heritage.

There are some Bedouin who feel they are now losing their way of life, their agricultural practices and their traditions in exchange for providing tourism ‘entertainment’. Some 150 Bedouin refused to move from the site at the time of the resettlements and more are moving back now that tourism has taken a serious dent. Bedouin culture and skills were thankfully also recognised by UNESCO, having been added to the Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2005.

You will also meet many Bedouin people while traveling in Wadi Rum, Jordan’s most famous desert region. Before tourism kicked off, their livelihoods revolved around goat herding. There are actually seven tribal groups here, the largest being the Zalabia tribe, most of whom live in Rum village and, working as a cooperative, are largely responsible for desert tours and camping activities. You may also meet members of the Zweideh tribe, based in the villages of Disi in the north of Wadi Rum, although they are still active farmers as they have more water resources on their side of the desert.

What you can do:
Please don’t take photographs of Bedouin people without permission. Just ask – it’s the easiest thing to do.

Buy local products if you can and remember that these guys aren’t simply guides who have been brought in to do a job. Have a look at this lovely film by Al Jazeera about the lives of Bedouin who are maintaining their cave lifestyles.

Do take time to camp out with the Bedouin and experience their world at sunset and sunrise, listen to their stories, share their unique coffee and food such as goats’ meat or milk, 'jameed' which is similar to yoghurt, and abud, which is bread baked on a fire.

Hospitality is at the core of Bedouin philosophy, something that emanates from their ancestral knowledge of how hard it is to survive in this terrain. So anyone who visits is to be well looked after.

Oh and never put your coffee cup on the ground. It suggests you have something important to discuss with your host. Unless, of course, you do.


Ancient sites

Petra UNESCO World Heritage Site
Andrew Appleyard, qualified archaeologist and international sales manager at our supplier, Exodus: "If you're looking to find out more about Petra from an archaeologist’s perspective, read Footsteps by Bruce Norman which features a section on Jean Louis Burckhardt, the Swiss traveler who rediscovered Petra in 1812."
Although the great site of Petra is protected by various national and international organisations, it is still very vulnerable. Which is not that surprising given that it is over 2,000 years old and is made of a rock that wields beautifully to carving but also to modern day human intervention. So there are some strict guidelines to follow. From keeping your walking poles in your backpack to being careful with your ass, or donkey, the Petra National Trust was set up to lead the way. We have written a special guide on this subject alone; see our Responsible Tourism in Petra and Wadi Rum travel guide for more details.

Madaba is famed for its mosaics, which date back to the 5th and 6th centuries. These include a Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land in the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, originally thought to have contained over 2.3 million pieces. More stunning examples can be seen in several of the town's other churches and in the Madaba Archaeological Museum. Madaba itself is over 3,500 years old, and is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. Nearby Mount Nebo is said to be the point from where Moses viewed the Promised Land. It’s no surprise then, that Madaba lures tourists and pilgrims from across the world to marvel at these ancient and holy wonders.

However, despite the number of tourist sites in and around Madaba, the majority of visitors come only on organised daytrips, which do little to benefit local communities. The Madaba Tourism Development Association is working to change this. A pilot project gives visitors the chance to visit local family farms to help pick olives or grapes and share a meal of local produce. There are also plans to take visitors by donkey into a beautiful part of the countryside that has a significant number of dolmens, large standing stone burial chambers dating from the Bronze Age.

What you can do:
Read up in detail about Bedouin culture and sites before you go, do opt for excursions if you are traveling with a responsible tourism operator and remember that you are walking through some of the most precious archaeological sites in the world. So tread carefully please. And ask your tour operator about getting off the beaten path at Madaba.

Wildlife & environment in Jordan


Camels & creature comforts

Dr Ghazi Mustafa, SPANA’s Jordan director and vet: “Animals in Jordan suffer from a variety of different problems; mostly ill-treatment due to ignorance. Educating owners and the younger generation is the key to changing the future for animals in Jordan to ensure they are treated with kindness and well looked after.”
Working animals have long been part of life in Jordan with the Bedouin, traditionally desert nomads having used camels for transportation and milk for generations. With the growth of tourism, camels are now being used for desert adventures or carrying tourists around Petra. Donkeys are also used, although there is careful licensing in place, monitoring who can actually bring animals inside Petra for this purpose. The US based animal welfare organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has raised awareness of cruelty towards both camels and donkeys at Petra, with some handlers beating them hard, giving them overly heavy loads to carry and leaving them undernourished or starved of water. You can see their video below for more details. PETA is lobbying the Jordanian government to use motorised vehicles to transport tourists around Petra, rather than animals. Although we do not promote a ban of working animals in Petra, we do agree with PETA that current working conditions are unacceptable, and animal welfare regulations must be established and rigorously enforced in order to safeguard the wellbeing of donkeys and camels.

This is the philosophy of SPANA, another animal welfare organisation on the ground. It has been in existence since 1989, specialises in protecting working animals, and treats almost 4,000 of them in Jordan each year. Such animals are seen as hardy, working ones, so SPANA works tirelessly to re-educate local people and, in particular, young people, as to how they can treat the animals with greater care. They run a veterinary clinic at Wadi Al Seer as well as clinics that travel out to remote communities. They also distribute nosebands and head collars to give extra creature comforts. Their education work is vital in changing the mindset so that in the future animals are not mistreated in this way.

Video by PETA

What you can do
If you see an animal being mistreated always say no to your guide, tell your tour operator and video or photograph it if possible. Sharing animal cruelty videos on social media and tagging in @VisitJordan is sometimes the best way to get the message across.

Please do also donate to SPANA which does incredible work at a local level.

Protecting coral & coast

There is a lot of emphasis on protecting the desert wilderness of Jordan but do also remember that its 27km coastline on the Red Sea is precious too. 7km of it is officially protected by its Aqaba Marine Park designation, which includes five beaches plus 21 dive sites in one of the world’s most northerly coral reefs. Although this reef has suffered some damage, it has fared better than several other Red Sea sites, and an ongoing project is developing artificial reefs.

One of the most important conservation measures was to ‘zone’ the park. This means that there are different areas assigned for leisure and glass bottomed boats, swimming, diving and research. The research areas are only open to park staff, keeping them as pristine and undisturbed as possible. The Marine Park Science Station also has specialists in various disciplines of marine biology and ecology that carry out ongoing research.

What you can do
Aqaba is still under pressure from degradation so please do your bit to leave no trace at all after your time at the beach, wear marine friendly cosmetics or sun creams, and if you are diving or snorkelling, don’t touch the coral and don’t remove anything from the seabed or seashore. Unless it is litter, of course. Read our Responsible scuba diving guide for more details.

Responsible tourism tips


  • Shop carefully. The most irresponsible thing you can buy is authentic ancient artefacts, because there is a risk that they have been stolen from protected sites, and they are illegal. So always refuse these if offered. The same goes for rock fragments.
  • Eating in public during Ramadan is not prohibited, but do try and restrict this anyway out of respect to practising Muslims.
  • Dress appropriately and keep your shoulders and legs covered at all times.
  • If you are hiking, be a responsible walker by staying well hydrated. Avoid plastic bottles by bringing your own self filtering water bottle.
  • Jordan is so important to bird species that almost 10 percent of its entire landmass has been designated an Important Birding Area (IBA). So pack your binoculars and see our Birding in Jordan guide for more details.
  • A lot of shops still use plastic bags in Jordan for purchases and they are now a litter problem, so please do bring your own reusable bag.
  • At mealtimes, you are expected to sit beside someone of the same gender. Eating with your hands is common, but as with all Muslim countries, you must do so with your right hand only. Always wash your hands both before and after the meal, as it is common to hand people food with your hands.
  • Public displays of affection are frowned upon, so rein it in please when out and about. And although homosexuality is legal in Jordan, they aren’t exactly flying rainbow flags from their windows yet, so same sex couples are advised to act discretely.
  • Smoking is still a big part of the culture in Jordan so although you might not want to partake, be prepared for some clouds of nicotine. Also, just about every café has an ‘argeeleh’ or hookah for smoking with every flavour under the sun. Food is core to Jordanian hospitality and refusing it is seen as rude. So do your best to tuck in.
  • Not surprisingly, Israel and Palestine is a sensitive issue and there are many Palestinians living in Jordan. So tread carefully with your views on this one.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Pocholo Calapre] [Top box - wadi Rum: Kyle Taylor] [Bedouin culture: Dan] [Refreshments stall: tjabeljan] [Aqaba reef: Joi Ito]