It seems somewhat ironic that the very first blog post of a travel website is dedicated to the devastating effects of tourism on Bedouins in the Wadi Rum area. But the interwebs are already full of ecstatic trip reports written by travelers who rarely spend more than a night in a luxury camp. Maybe it’s time for a slightly more sobering and different picture.
Spending A Month Among Bedouins
I came to the Jordanian desert with a mission. One month of climbing the legendary sandstone towers of the Wadi Rum, and meeting old friends from Canada, Australia, the UK, Switzerland and Jordan. But the mountains had other plans for me. On the third day a big foothold broke, and my left shoulder briefly popped out. No climbing for a while. I suddenly had a lot of free time to explore the area.
Welcome to Mars
The enthusiastic descriptions are not exaggerated. The landscape is truly spectacular. Big domes of golden and red sandstone tower over dunes and bizarre rock formations. No wonder they shot the movie The Martian here. After a recent and exceptional period of rain the desert is teeming with life. Little purple and white flowers carpet the red sands. But that’s only where the fragile ground hasn’t been totally flattened by the countless jeeps that ferry tourists to and from the Bedouin camps. Mass tourism hit this place, hard.
From Camels To Jeeps
Only a few decades ago Wadi Rum was nothing more than a handful of tents and a few permanent buildings. Nowadays the village has grown to the size of a small city. Wadi Rum is firmly established on the touristic trail between Amman and the Red Sea. The thing “to do” for tourists here is to spend the night in a Bedouin camp in the desert, usually accompanied by a jeep tour.
Listening to the daily conversation between visitors and the Bedouin owners, it becomes clear that hot showers, luxury rooms and WiFi are in high demand. And people are in a hurry. Tomorrow, Petra or Aqaba. The good old camels, the ships of the desert for thousands of years, have been largely replaced by a fleet of jeeps and tankers. At night, the lights of the numerous camps and vehicles compete with the stars.
The Generation Gap
The degradation of the fragile desert ecosystem is certainly disturbing. But the rapid influx of tourist dollars also has a profound effect on the local Bedouin tribes. Traditionally nomadic, many families in the area have opted to settle down, with the men working in the camps and the women and children staying in the houses in the village.
Hospitality is an integral part of Arabic culture, and Bedouins are no different. The older generation still honors this age-old tradition, but the young, emboldened by the fast money of the tourist trade, tend to see things very differently. Conversations now often start with “Do you have a ticket?”, where of course no ticket is required.
But the arguably greatest loss is cultural. The art of herding camels is rapidly disappearing. Few now know really how to live, let alone survive in the desert. Within a couple of generations, it is likely that this knowledge will completely be lost.
Why Are The Bedouins Hiding The Women?
One striking feature of the Wadi Rum village is the total absence of women. At the age of 13, the girls systematically disappear behind the walls of the family home, only to venture out on very rare occasions wearing the niqab. This is not normal behavior for Jordan, and in stark contrast with neighboring villages.
Bedouin women typically play an active role in the community, often taking care of goat and camel herds. The harsh desert environment dictates an important role for every family member. I’ve observed this several times with the Bedouins of Oman. I can only speculate on why exactly this is happening in Wadi Rum. Perhaps it is an overreaction to the perceived (and apparently sometimes real) promiscuity of foreigners.
The girls in our group also quickly got involved in rather unpleasant incidents. The disrespectful behavior of some young men even got abusive and threatening one night. Again, this total lack of respect is not something normal, and downright shocking for this culture.
Many Questions, Few Answers
I’m perfectly aware that I’m a tourist too. Therefore, I’m part of the problem. And one question keeps haunting me. Is it possible to have a positive impact as a tourist? Or at least minimize one’s negative impact in such an environment? I have found no easy answer so far.
Our group managed to invite one local for dinner at our camp in the mountains so far, and this definitely felt like a step in the right direction. We always rave about hospitality while traveling but rarely do much to return the favor. We picked up some trash. And we tried to somewhat reduce our consumption of plastic. I briefly helped Bedouins with an IT issue. But a feeling of uneasiness remains.
Maybe the only real solution is to stay away from such places. But going to yet unspoiled destinations places an even bigger burden and responsibility on the traveler. Are we up for the task?