Is there a choice for Wadi Rum’s Unesco bid?

Over the past few weeks, much has been said about the latest bid by archaeologists, government officials and tourism experts to have Wadi Rum  admitted to a prestigious group of natural heritage sites named UNESCO.


There can be little question that the protected zone’s unique landscapes, natural rock formations, flora and fauna justify warrant inclusion on the list.

That it remains in question whether the bid should be a single site application or mixed site, including cultural and environmental importance, is surprising.

In 2005, the bedu community of Wadi Rum was named to UNESCO’s first intangible cultural heritage list.  Thanks in great part to the efforts of Jordan’s Royal Family, this people’s unique oral traditions, culture and lifestyle were declared to have importance to the world overall and it’s safeguarding a priority.  In 2008, the permanent list was confirmed and the people of Wadi Rum became one of the only members of the list to have their entire culture, not merely a minor tradition, named a world heritage.

Given that UNESCO has already sent a very clear signal as to its expectations for Wadi Rum; given that a culture’s people and environs are inextricably linked; it would seem prudent to only pursue a mixed site application if for no other reason than to acknowledge UNESCO’s current position.

Forgetting the politics for a moment, economics would also seem to support such a bid.  The ATDI 2008 Tourism Index listed Jordan in the top 10 of developing countries ranking high scores on every factor with the exception of two:  culture and heritage.  The country that holds one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Petra; as well as Karak castle, Jerash, the baptism site of Jesus, Mount Nebo, Dana Nature reserve; received low marks for culture and heritage.

This grade reflects the realities of tourism today.  Frequent  and responsible travelers are seeking something deeper in the destinations they choose; they seek a sense of understanding and full, quasi-immersive, experience.  They seek authentic culture rather than historical monuments surrounded by modern vendors.

On the other hand, they are willing to compensate those destinations that meet their needs with benefits traditional tourism does not.  Cultural-adventure tourism experiences much less sensitivity to economic cycles, provides the structural foundation for sustainable tourism and results in longer and repetitive stays.  Given that a basic requirement is the involvement of the local culture in the broadest sense, this type of tourism rewards local entrepreneurs and their communities rather than large foreign hospitality brands.

Dozens of young Bedouin entrepreneurs have already created their own activity as tourist guides, taking advantage of the new technologies of communication. They create employment, hire local people as guides, cooks and drivers. They implement good practices for environmental protection and contribute to raise general awareness among the local community on conservation of nature. They share with their visitors their experience of desert living and their traditions, helping to enhance Wadi Rum and Jordan’s reputation abroad.

Current tourism traffic to the area is predominantly characterized by tourist buses transferring their human cargo to jeeps for a three-hour whirlwind ride through the desert.  Tourism that encourages a cultural as well as natural experience would extend these stays to a minimum of between 2 and 4 nights with guests taking time to explore the deep desert, the bedu, music, poetry, animals, food, ceremonies, handicrafts and hospitality but only if they are integrated into a complete authentic experience.  It would encourage Wadi Rum as a primary destination rather than one stop on a tour of Jordan.

Photo: Petra Fantozzi

Photo: Petra Fantozzi

Established tourism destinations understand the importance of culture in guaranteeing repeat traffic over decades.  Florence has topped the Tourism league tables for close to 300 years.  Tourists return again and again not to revisit its monuments and art but to lose themselves in its culture.  The town fathers of Florence understand this and take great pains to promote the capital as a living cultural centre steeped in history yet rich in life.

Westerners have many things to learn from the Bedouins: their traditions of hospitality and openness, their sense of humour, their roles as men and women, their knowledge in different areas of desert survival, art, traditional medicine, tracking, breeding and handicrafts. They are open books for anyone wishing to learn and the perfect ingredient for Cultural Tourism.

This same culture is at risk, as confirmed by UNESCO’s inclusion on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list.  Modern pressures and socio-economic changes challenge its survival that is exceedingly fragile due to its oral nature.  For this reason, the Bedouin Heritage Project was founded, to safeguard the oral traditions, ethnography and intangible culture of the Bedu of Wadi Rum.

Thanks to the support of sponsors such as Canon, Royal Jordanian Airlines, AssistAmerica, PhotoAid and others, the Bedouin Heritage Project has made great strides in the goal of safeguarding the unique intangible culture of the Bedouin people of Wadi Rum. Following a month’s field work, the first of many, BHP’s living library of the Bedu includes over 11,000 photos, 15 hours of HD video, multiple cds of audio, text and musical recordings covering the spectrum of activities, culture and daily life.

Photo: Mark Abouzeid

Photo: Mark Abouzeid

The work being performed by BHP, which is expected to take a minimum of two years to complete, is a close collaboration with residents of the community in order to ensure that these traditions will exist for their children’s children.  Bedouin are represented as advisors to the Board of BHP and act as principle members of the production crew ensuring that what is captured has long-term value and is authentic.

The work will not end in Wadi Rum, either.  The best practices of the first project will be applied to Bedouin communities throughout Jordan, the Middle East and the World.