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ECOCLUB Interviews are a true who is who of the ecotourism movement

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ISSN 1108-8931


 Year 8 - Issue 96 - Mar 08

This issue sponsored by: Siam Safari Nature Tours (TH), Canyon Travel (MX), La Selva Jungle Lodge (EC),
Eco Holidays Malta (MT), Abha Palace (SA), St-Géry Historic Estate (FR), International Centre for Responsible Tourism (UK)

HABIS SAMAWI: "Decision makers are not very aware about ecotourism issues, most think only about attracting more economic development"

ECOCLUB Interviews Professor Habis Samawi
Associate Professor in Tourism, Dept .of Geography,
Social Science College, Jordan University

Index of Interviews

Prof. Habis SamawiDr Samawi obtained his B.A. in Geography from Beirut Arab University an MA in Geography of Tourism from Alexandria University, Egypt and a Ph.D. in Geography of Tourism from the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A. He has held various academic and professional posts, including Researcher for The Ministry of Tourism in Jordan, Director of Tourist Guides Program in Jordan University, supervising over 35 Groups and Associate Professor in the Dept. of Information, Tourism & Arts of the University of Bahrain. A keen supporter of Ecotourism, Dr Samawi presented a paper on “Perceptions and preferences of Tourists toward selected Ecotourism Destinations in Bahrain” at the Global Ecotourism conference 2007, in Oslo, Norway, while he has also produced various ecotourism papers including “Ecotourism in Petra, Jordan”, “Ecotourism in the Arab World” and “Marine Ecotourism in Bahrain”. He lives in Amman, Jordan.

(The Interview follows:)

ECOCLUB.com: Much is being said about Tourism's potential for peace building. Have you seen this at all in Jordan, with reference to cross-border Tourism in Aqaba & Eilat?

In fact, the role of Tourism in bringing peace to Jordan is very obvious. For example, The Dead Sea beach before the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in 1994 was undeveloped, but since the peace treaty you will notice a big tourism development. More than four big hotels (5 stars) have already been constructed, around five more are in the process as well as many other services such as restaurants and other. This is just one example. In Aqaba region now, there is a big development plan, also because of the political stability in Jordan, there are a lot of investors from neighbouring countries who are moving in the area.

ECOCLUB.com: Besides the peace treaty and investment - does tourism visibly lead to understanding and conciliation at the people level? Is there any evidence? Are there any specific tourism programs designed to do so?

Yes there is some development in Dhana reserve for example where the local people are directing the whole site, but in many other the locals are still not aware about ecotourism procedures. The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) is the body mainly concerned about all ecotourism issues in Jordan.

ECOCLUB.com: How important is domestic tourism in Jordan and in what aspects is it different than international tourism?

In Jordan, one notices three types of tourist movements: first, international visitors coming for cultural and religious purposes constitute around 40% of the total, while regional visitors coming mainly from the Gulf States (Arabs) are around 55%, and domestic tourism accounts account for just 5%. Now both regional and domestic visitors are mainly interested in recreational issues as well as medical and educational issues. Domestic tourist demand increases on the weekends and holidays, their favourite sites are natural reserves such as Dhana and Dubin and Aqaba, as they tend to prefer nature and the sea.

ECOCLUB.com: Islamic tourism is a new and growing trend in the region. Does it merely describe the diversion of tourism flows after 9/11, when Arab and Muslim tourists started visiting Arab destinations, whereas Westerners stayed away? Or rather, is it a regional version of Ethical / Responsible Tourism'?

After 9/11, everything changed and tourism in Arab countries has increased. Also, I think we have to remember that according to 2005 Statistics Arab tourists from the gulf states are rated the highest spenders among all tourists, spending twice as much as the others. Essentially, Arabs started looking for new tourism markets, particularly in South East Asia and Turkey. But do not forget another explanation that describes the movement among the Arab tourists, which is that they speak the same language and they have the same religion, and they are neighbouring and very close, so most of them come by driving their own vehicles, and this saves money too. I will not agree with the term of Islamic Tourism, Muslim tourists in general have the same needs. In the 1950s local people in Spain were annoyed by European tourists who used to come for swimming but today Spain has become the most important tourist destination after France. I see a big development in responsible tourism in the Arab world.

ECOCLUB.com: Are there any negative effects from Tourism in Jordan so far, especially in areas such as Aqaba that have experienced intense development in the past decade?

The World Heritage Site of Petra

As you know, tourism has two aspects, the positive one where Jordan has gained more hard currency, income and more employment opportunities for their people, around 32,000 new jobs in Jordan according to 2006 statistics. For the negative, I can see pollution and other social problems, the local people always complaining and some times rejecting the western tourists’ behaviour. Most tourist sites in Jordan attract cultural tourists, and these are mainly elderly people and they cause no problem to the local communities. I think in Aqaba we might have some resistance between the locals and tourists in the beginning. Locals are always complaining because in some areas they are not benefiting from tourism. For example in Petra, Rum, Dhana local people are so happy to coexist with tourists, but for the rest sites such as Jerash, Madaba, Ajlun, Umm Quies and Aqaba the attitude of the locals is negative toward tourists.

ECOCLUB.com: How high on the agenda, is environmental protection and water conservation in particular when it comes to new tourism project developments in Jordan? Is there an adequate ecotourism legal framework in place?

Yes, Jordan is very aware about environmental issues, so before making any tourism development in any area they usually consider the environment. One of the most important issues that is facing Jordan is the shortage of water, and you know tourists are consuming water more than the locals. In Jordan, you can see a lot of natural reserves such as Dhana , Shumeri ,Dubin and many others. So I see Jordan as the most environmentally-conscious Arab country. But for sure we are still behind western Europe. There is an adequate legal framework for ecotourism but the problem is its application: for example, the RSCN has set laws and policies to preserve and conserve nature and tourists sites. There is a big project going to take place in one of the sensitive areas in Dubin-Jordan very close to Dubin reserve. The only people who expressed concern about the project were RSCN. The project is currently under way, however many changes were made so as to protect the environment.

ECOCLUB.com: Is the western beach culture, the sea sun & sand tourism really compatible with prevailing traditions and social norms in Jordan, or is Aqaba and Wadi Rum accepted as a sort of special enclave where beach culture - and even overnight rave parties are tolerated so that mainstream young westerners are attracted to visit Jordan? Is any alternative strategy focusing on ecologically & culturally sensitive travellers also followed?

Without any doubt, there is a difference between the needs, the beliefs and the attitudes between Arabs and Western Europeans, at the moment I do not think that Jordan is ready to host young tourists, and especially in Aqaba we will see some reluctance from the locals. In case of the cultural tourists I think it is not causing any troubles among the local communities. Frankly speaking the economic development council in Aqaba are the only people who can decide about tourism projects in the area, they consider some issues, but I am sure if there is they are presented with an ecotourism study, they will stop the tourist projects especially in Aqaba, because they are against the environment. Wadi Rum right now is still doing well.

ECOCLUB.com: Has Tourism, as in other countries, resulted in or at least promoted an
emancipation / empowerment of women in Jordan, and has this created any tensions?

Jordan is different than many Arab countries; the women in Jordan have the right to vote and to reach a high position, so now you will find more than three women holding the post of government minister. At the same time women have the right to go to universities, where you can find real competition between men and women. But again we can not compare ourselves with the western communities. The role of women is still small even when you go to high education in tourism, you will find women demand in tourism education is less than for men, because of traditions and customs. I think it is a matter of time. Twenty years ago men used not to be in favour of working in hotels, but now all things have changed: 95% of workers in tourism are Jordanians, out of which 15% are women.

ECOCLUB.com: Is Tourism gaining in popularity in Jordanian universities in terms of number of students, Tourism departments and courses taught, and what about Ecotourism?

Yes there is a big demand in Jordan universities for tourism programmes so more than 8 universities out of 18 are offering one major in tourism, and in October 2007 a big conference was hosted by Jordan Applied University and The college of Hospitality Tourism Education about the future of tourism education in Jordan. For Ecotourism education yes there is a good movement. There are more courses and workshops to be held in the area in coordination with RSCN and the Ministry of Environment and UNEP. By the way UNEP have a base in Bahrain and I worked there as a consultant since 2000. We have produced many reports and held many workshops in Lebanon, Egypt, Oman and Oslo–Norway. I produced with UNEP two reports one about sustainable tourism in hotels, and the other about sustainable tourism in the Arab World. At the same time the Tourism sector has now become very aware about ecotourism issues, so with the help of TIES a workshop was held in Amman in January 2008.

ECOCLUB.com: You have also greatly researched Tourism in Bahrain. Once upon a time most Gulf countries rejected international tourism. What prompted this sea change? How sustainable is the Bahrain tourism model, in an environmental, social and economical sense, and does it differ at all from the Dubai model?

My main experience is based on Bahrain where I stayed for 5 years. Tourism became an important way to attract more Arab and foreign investment, but the problem here is not with the people but with the decision-makers, most people are aware about the negative impacts that big tourism projects may cause to the sensitive shores. The real problem as I mentioned lies with the decision makers: three or four big tourism projects have recently been established and they are impacting negatively on the environment. In Oman for example they held last year a big international conference in Ecotourism. I hope neither Bahrain nor Oman are going to copy the Dubai model. The decision makers are not very aware about ecotourism issues, most think only about attracting more economic development and big project regardless of the social and environmental impacts.

ECOCLUB.com: After the rather-hyped "New Seven Wonders of the World" competition, even the most ignorant will have now heard of the cultural & natural wonder that is Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But how is Petra coping with the growing affection? Are there plans to cap the number of visitors, raise prices or are other visitor management tools being considered?

Jordan was proud to have Petra listed among the new 7 wonders. I think this will not change much, because we all know the importance of Petra among the rest of the cultural sites in the world, it is really magnificent not only for Jordan but for the whole world. I think it might attract more tourists, but again we have to keep an eye on the number of tourist arrivals in order to preserve the location for the new generations. I think we are going to limit the number of tourists in Petra. There are many ways to eliminate excessive tourist numbers in sensitive sites such as by increasing entrance fees, through a management plan to limit, or by educating locals and tourists about the sensitivity of Petra.

ECOCLUB.com: Finally, what sites would you recommend to Ecotourism enthusiasts in Jordan?

I can suggest so many sites, such as Petra, Jerash, Madaba, Dhana reserves, Wadi Rum. I recommend Petra because it is very rich in their nature and culture, it is one of the best preserved ancient sites in the world, this was the reason it was nominated as one of the new 7 Wonders of the World, and also there is a good management plan to conserve the whole site. In Wadi Rum there is the Rum Reserve where RSCN is monitoring the development of any tourist projects - they do not let any hotel to be established in the area. In addition Dhana reserve and the Baptism site are really well preserved sites and locals are being trained to work in both locations. Thank you for the great opportunity to express my ideas to you and to the ECOCLUB.

ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much!

The Martian Landscape of Wadi Rum

Find the complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here

Disclaimer:  Any views expressed in this magazine belong to their respective authors and are not necessarily those of ECOCLUB S.A. Although we try to check all facts, we accept no liability for inaccuracies - which means you should not take any travel or other decisions based only on what you read here... Use of this magazine is covered by the Terms & Conditions of the ECOCLUB.com Website and by your uncommon sense and good humour.


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