“Be willing to take risks. Make connections and collaborate. Above all, be brave, adventurous, celebrate diversity, and trust in shared humanity.” This inspiring call to action began for most AdventureNEXT Near East delegates well before adventurer and keynote speaker Leon McCarron put it into such eloquent words from the stage at the opening session of the May 2018 event.
Everyone stretched beyond their comfort zones and took a leap of faith: suppliers based in the Near East region making the decision to invest in (and cross borders for) a regional adventure-focused tourism event, the international tourism community investing their time in the region, Westerners fielding mass media-driven concerns for their safety from well-meaning colleagues and family, and even event venue staff making service adjustments to heed the request for no plastic water bottles, cups, utensils, or straws. We stepped and the bridge appeared, Indiana-Jones-style, built by the collective power, collaboration, and shared sense of purpose to advance tourism that values the preservation of nature and culture.
It was a stretch for me too. Like many Westerners, I had never been to the Near East or even to a predominantly Muslim country. And, like most people in the travel industry, there is an infinite number of places I’ve never been. At our best, travel professionals recognize the privilege we have to travel offers the great benefit of having experiences that change our own perspectives and a sense of obligation to help others find new perspectives as well — through new travel products, new partnerships, or shared stories.
My first impression of Jordan after arriving was one of space — open land, open sky. This was on the way to the Dead Sea from Jordan’s capital, Amman, with a colleague to prepare for the event. Our self-admittedly chatty (and cheerful) shuttle driver, Mohammad, suggested a stop for coffee.
As we pulled over on the side of the road, a man ran toward the van from an adjacent storefront and took Mohammad’s order from the passenger window. A few minutes later, he delivered Turkish coffees on a silver tray, hot and satisfyingly strong. We tried to offer money, but Mohammad refused. “Please,” he said. “Let me welcome you to Jordan.” We thanked him. “You’re welcome,” he said in an earnestness and tone familiar in Jordan, but never commonplace in its integrity.
Meanwhile, Jordan’s spectacular and humbling outdoor adventures, history, and people were coming to life through the #ANEXTNearEast hashtag, used by event delegates who were on small group adventure tours with local operators prior to the AdventureNEXT Near East.
Photos of adorable goats, mystical camels, the astounding ancient ruins of Petra, epic red rock vistas, other-worldly desert landscapes, Bedouin camps, tea (so much tea!), incredible food spreads, the vast night sky. Portraits of people smiling, hugging, kissing on the cheek, and gathered in groups. And food … so much beautiful food.
During the event itself, we spent an enchanting evening at the Al Numeira Environmental Association in a local village — a featured location on the new Meaningful Travel Map of Jordan. The villagers warmly welcomed us with tea, traditional music, twinkling lights, and a marketplace of goods homemade by the women from the community, then enjoyed a meal the village prepared for us. Community musicians provided entertainment and local men danced (then the women, encouraged by event delegates) until it was time to go. It didn’t occur to me until the bus ride home we hadn’t been served a drop of alcohol.
“I’ve lost track of how many times words like ‘family,’ ‘friends,’ and ‘connections’ were repeated over the last 48 hours,” said Manal Kelig, executive director of the Middle East Near Africa (MENA) region for the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), as AdventureNEXT Near East came to a close. Indeed, possibilities had grown and shifted as a result of our collective gathering, ones we would share with our own communities upon returning home.
After the event, a few ATTA team members and I finally had a chance to visit Jordan on a more intimate level. We hiked into Petra through the back door and drank Bedouin tea with a sprig of fresh thyme under a cool tent after an ascent. We experienced the breathtaking moment of seeing its Monastery for the first time, the awe of the ancient city in the valley, the impossibility of the Treasury carved into the canyon some 2,000 years ago, and were drawn back in again for Petra’s night show.
In Wadi Rum I rode a camel for the first time. We traveled through the desert in the back of truck, climbed up on rocks, danced across the sand at dusk like little kids, and sat around a dried sagebrush fire as the sun set, contemplating our place in the world in the quiet crackling of the fire while sipping sweet, hot tea. Back at camp after dinner, we gathered outside for a nightcap (more tea, of course), gazing upon the canyon walls and night sky full of stars — a sky that beckoned me to take a short walk beyond the glow of candlelight and into the darkness, where I found our driver Fakher Eldin (“just call me Dean”) taking it in as well.
“There are special places in the world that act as portals to connect you to the universe, to that which is bigger than you,” he said after we stood for some time in the silence together. “Wadi Rum is one of those places. Every time I come here, I find a deeper layer within myself.”
He told me that two years ago he was staying at his friend’s eco-camp nearby, watching the trucks coming and going all day, bringing people to a natural rock bridge formation that was visible from where he stood. As the sun was setting and the last truck left, he was compelled to walk across the desert, hike up the rocks and stand on the high bridge himself, where he had an epiphany: “We cross many bridges like this in life. Once you overcome the fear of walking over, you reach the other side … and everything is better.”
It was at that moment he decided to start an experiential tour business to “show people more of Jordan” beyond the things they typically see on their first trip. “Because people always want to come back,” he said.
I can remember a time when I thought traveling somewhere with a guide made the experience somehow less authentic. But with skilled guides like Ramzi (our main guide) and Dean, I was reminded of how much more authentic it is when you’re spending your energy on the experience, seeing things you might have missed on your own. Plus you witness the hospitality and sincerity of the Jordanian people not only by how they treat you as a visitor, but how the men treat each other — with sincere eye contact, firm handshakes, and solid kisses on both cheeks.
We ended our trip at Beit Sitti, a family-run traditional Arabic cooking and dining experience held in the private home of the founding sisters’ late grandmother in Amman. Her Excellency Lina Annab, the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities for Jordan (and speaker at AdventureNEXT Near East), heard we were there and joined us and a handful of other travelers for her Saturday night dinner as well, showing us yet again how genuinely welcomed we were.
Surrounded by walls adorned with family photos, we shared our enlightening experiences in Jordan’s more remote places over dinner. We also talked about our concern of the risk it runs — along with so many other places — of being negatively impacted by a surge of modern-day global travelers so often driven to check something off their bucket lists. We recalled and acknowledged Lina’s remarks onstage at the event about the responsibility we all have to ensure these attractions are managed and protected. It is important that “the authentic experience of culture and nature that travelers seek does not disappear … turning their paradise found into a paradise lost,” she said.
After we all bid our farewells, I thought of Dr. Rifai, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization, and his stirring words from the opening remarks at the conference: “Adventure is a fulfillment. It’s an experience. It’s what life is all about. It’s what excites you in life. Falling in love is an adventure. Loving your country is an adventure. Having a good meal is an adventure. Experiencing something that’s different from your regular day and routine is an adventure.”
And perhaps most importantly, “Whatever business you do, don’t ever forget that our core business in life is simply to make this world a better place.”