© ATTA / Hassen Salum

When Travel Breaks Your Heart, Then Heals It

29 February 2024

The Jordan Tourism Board of North America (JTBNA) recently invited a small group of travel representatives to visit Jordan and witness firsthand the impact of war on the region’s tourism. Gabi and I attended, representing ATTA, and have just returned ready to report back to you, our global community. Admittedly, I had some concerns. 

I was not concerned about feeling safe in Jordan; the country is stable even when its “neighborhood” is not. But, the trip was planned during a time when the United States announced that there would be a series of military actions and retaliations, and media pundits were predicting massive regional instability that would closely coincide with our arrival. Above all else, I pondered whether the timing was right for us to go because of the inevitable question I could predict from others, and felt myself asking: “How can you travel when so many people are suffering nearby?” 

Now, I believe the timing was right – gathering first-person experiences and engaging in conversations that would not make it into a 24-hour news cycle are what is needed to better understand the nuances of the situation, and the impacts beyond the war itself. And that is what we did, because when our friends and colleagues in Jordan ask for help, we show up.

Gabi and I joined a group of twenty JTBNA staff, media, tour operators, and industry leaders on a journey across Jordan to both see historically popular locations like Petra and visit less-traveled locations and communities. The experience was very revealing. First, I have to say our group was absolutely amazing and the thoughtfulness and care evident in every single person was wonderful. We frequently talked about how it was hard to reconcile our joy of traveling in Jordan with the realities next door. We cannot solve a geopolitical crisis, but we can have a positive impact. 

What we can do, and where we do have influence, is much more subtle. While the atrocities of the Israel-Hamas war and intense human suffering are concentrated in Gaza right now, there is an undeniable ‘halo effect’ that impacts the entire region. Tourism has slowed dramatically. And this matters because millions of people in the region are either directly or indirectly economically tied to what travelers spend there. All too often, it can mean the difference between putting food on the table – or not.

So that was our mission: to truthfully report back on our experience within our circles of influence and hopefully offer some nuance that goes beyond the headlines. In this article, I won’t spend much time reporting from site to site in Jordan, but instead try to share some impressions and address the thoughts that are top of mind for travel industry professionals.

© ATTA / Our guide Majdi (left) and part of the team traveling in Jordan at the cooperative Dar Ne’meh near Amman.

The fallacy of “us” versus “them”

From the beginning, we were universally welcomed. In fact, it struck me that the most common phrase I heard when meeting people in the community was, “You are welcome to Jordan.”  Not just a casual, “Welcome to Jordan,” but with an emphasized “You.”  The subtle difference had a major impact along the lines of, “I see you as an individual, and you are welcome.” 

While stopped en route to Petra for a fuel refill, I noticed the man filling our tank had piercing eyes and a strong demeanor. He asked me where I was from, and I was a bit reluctant to reply, knowing my home government has made some decisions that have had profoundly negative impacts on Jordan and the region. I replied a bit apprehensively, and his face broke into a big smile as he said, “You are welcome to Jordan!” I felt properly humbled as I responded, “Thank you, I love Jordan!” which he met with, “I love the US!”

On our final evening, our group was shopping for local goods and gifts. We ended up in a shop which had a prominent sign in the front of the store that read “Pray for Palestine.” In chatting with the shopkeeper, our conversation inevitably turned to his business and the impact of the war. “Business is not very good, many tourists are afraid to come,” he admitted. He went on to share that he was born in Gaza, but moved to Jordan as a child. He had lost 17 relatives in the current conflict. For him, and many Jordanians, the war is more complicated than taking sides of one government or religion over another. Friends and family members live across many geopolitical boundaries and belief systems, representing a more diverse immediate community than many people realize. A Jewish friend of his told him, “Our grandparents would be ashamed of what is happening right now.”

The halo effect of war

While walking up the hill to Mt. Nebo – the site where according to the Old Testament, Moses saw the promised land, but was denied entry by God – we crossed paths with five teenage girls who were giggling and poking each other. Some made heart shapes with their hands towards us. Malia, our host and the Managing Director of JTBNA spoke to them, and introduced herself. We learned they were from Jordan, Palestine, and Gaza. Some of the women from our group and the girls took a photo together, but afterward, with solemn faces, the teens asked us not to post anything on social media. We assured them that we would not, and for that reason have also excluded the photo here. As our conversation continued, we learned that one of the girls from Gaza had already lost 40 relatives since the war began. The others were doing everything in their power to bring her joy, which on that day happened to be visiting some of Jordan’s popular sites nearby.

The spirit of giving 
© ATTA / Shannon receiving Arabic coffee from a staff member of Sufra, a must-eat restaurant in Amman.

One evening we ate at Sufra, a restaurant in Amman that offers a fantastic array of Jordanian dishes, beginning with a small Arabic coffee in ornate ceramic cups upon arrival. It was delicious, and I asked the Bedouin gentleman serving coffee if I could have a second cup. He pointed wordlessly with his free hand at each one of his cheeks close under his eyes and then poured the cup with a smile. A restaurant host who witnessed the interaction kindly explained, “That gesture is an old Bedouin tradition, it is meant to show that he would even give you both his eyes if you asked for them.” 

Our dinner began with six different kinds of mezze, including hummus, labneh, and olives, followed by an array of chicken and lamb kebabs. Within an hour we were stuffed. As I looked at the table of remaining food, feelings of guilt crept in. Food waste is troublesome on so many levels, but it felt particularly intense knowing that neighbors over the nearby border are starving and unable to access aid. With the power of a mindreader, our host clinked her glass to make an announcement that it was clear everyone was done and full, and she was pleased to share that Sufra wastes no leftover food. Everything uneaten gets gathered and boxed, and those facing food insecurity know to come at closing time to pick up meals to feed their families. That simple action creates powerful impact. 

Sustainable practices

We were invited by the JTBNA to dine together at Carob House in Madaba, founded by ATTA member Rakan Meyhar, who is also a co-founder of adventure tour operator Terhaal Adventures. The concept for his restaurant is fairly simple but the execution is complex – he laughed and told me he learns something new every day. The food for the restaurant is all locally grown through regenerative farming practices. Essentially, the goal is to create a miniature ecosystem within the farm, using methods integrated with nature that place a heavy focus on natural soil health and minimize waste. It is very hard to do and there aren’t any shortcuts, but in working to align with nature, the payoff is huge. Sustainability becomes embedded in the operation – even the building is situated over a natural cave that they use to store items that need to be kept cool. We dined on a nine-course meal that was mostly vegetarian and allowed the successful syncretism between the field and the kitchen to truly shine. Many of us agreed it was easily in the top ten meals of our lives.

© ATTA / In the cave underneath Carob Tree restaurant listening to stories from owner Rakan Meyhar.

Community initiatives

One afternoon we were invited to a women’s cooperative, Dar Ne’meh, to meet the women artisans who sell their crafts there and enjoy lunch together. This project is overseen by the Princess Taghrid Institute for Development and Training. Dar Ne’meh is a hub for supporting local Jordanian home-based businesses and entrepreneurial projects. We learned that they often employ women who were raised in orphanages but age out when they turn 18, left without any social safety net or family structure to lean on. They gain skills and professional experience through the program – from handicrafts to cheesemaking – which allows them to expand their future employment prospects and offers the opportunity to make a living.

Looking ahead 

Our time in Jordan was incredible; we felt safe, welcomed, over-fed, and treated with never ending kindness through conversations, tea, and brief exchanges. Jordan’s well-known highlights, like Petra and Wadi Rum, are breathtaking but currently emptier than usual. Places like Mount Nebo offer opportunities to learn, think, and introspect. While there is a ubiquitous air of sadness and mourning because of the myriad connections between Jordan and their neighbors in acute conflict, the overwhelming desire there is for peace. The geopolitical realities continue to look pretty grim, but much of the mainstream media do not tell the stories of peace. It is important to remember that the people closest to the conflict have the same desires as the rest of humanity – peace, co-existence, and security. 

Taleb Rifai, the former UNWTO Secretary General and a Jordanian national, was a relentless advocate for tourism to be a force for good. Before he retired, he told me, “There is no future for travel and tourism if you’re not welcomed and embraced by the local community.” 

If being welcomed and embraced by the local community is a hallmark of sustainable tourism, then I feel confident that Jordan’s future will continue to shine as adventure travelers uncover all the country has to offer. I eagerly look forward to planning my next trip to Jordan – I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Ready to learn more about how you can work with Jordan? Please visit www.myjordanjourney.com or reach out to: [email protected].