Pandemic may force Jordan Ecolodge into bankruptcy,erasing livelihoods of 100 Bedouin families.
AMMAN, JORDAN - If Nabil Tarazi was motivated principally by business profits, he would have handed the keys to Feynan Ecolodge over to the Jordanian government last spring.
“Had I been running a proper business, and when I say proper, I mean purely thinking of the (financial) bottom line, we would have taken that option back in April,” Tarazi said in a video interview from his home in Jordan’s capital.
Jordan’s government allows businesses to suspend operations for two months at a time, freeing firms from the obligation of paying staff salaries. Tarazi’s largest expense is salaries, as his 24 full-time staff at the lodge represent 70 to 80 per cent of Feynan’s fixed costs.
What has stopped him from taking that step is concern over the impact that would have on 500 people, close to 100 desert-dwelling families, mainly Bedouins, who provide goods and services to the Ecolodge, and do not have other opportunities to earn income. About half of the fees that Feynan’s guests pay stay in the community.
MEDA, through its Jordan Valley Links project funded by Global Affairs Canada and the donations of private supporters, helped Feynan to become a viable year-round destination for tourists through a grant that helped the off-grid lodge install a larger solar power system. That new system powers additional fridges and freezers, fans in guest rooms, and heating water for showers.
Having worked with the Bedouin community in the desert surrounding Feynan for over a decade, saying that eco-tourism is a sustainable source of livelihoods, he struggles to undermine their trust by saying there is no longer any work, so “sort yourself out. How are they going to sort themselves out?”
Fifteen years ago, before Feynan came along, most of the Bedouin were still shepherds, and there was less population, he said. “It’s a different thing when you are running things a certain way, to say – go back to no income.”
“Our losses so far are over $230 (thousand) US dollars. We’re not going to be able to continue much longer. So now, we are just taking it one month at a time, with the hope we’ll sell enough to cover salaries.”
The reversal of fortunes that Tarazi has seen over the past years has been a 180-degree change.
“2019 was a record year for the whole tourism sector, after years of hemorrhaging,” he said.
Up until early March of 2020, bookings pointed to another banner year.
That success was recognized on the international stage. In November 2019, Feynan was honored at the World Responsible Tourism Awards in London England with a gold award for limiting greenhouse emissions.
“We have a model for people to replicate. We’re pioneering in what we do.”
Cancellations started around March 10, then everything shut down on March 17.
Jordan did “one of the most draconian shutdowns in the world” when the virus hit, ordering total curfews and airport closures for close to three months.
The country opened up again in June, which is a slow month for Feynan.
Some govt assistance allowed him to reduce salaries for a time and take on some loans. “We’re running with that system, but we are teetering on bankruptcy as a company.”
In December, a month that is often busy at Feynan, they sold 30 or 35 room nights in total, less than five per cent of capacity.
That has dried up income for most of the 500 people who rely on Feynan for their livelihoods, including Bedouin guides and hosts, drivers, and women who bake bread. “Everybody’s income has gone down dramatically. Everybody’s bleeding, and we don’t see an end in sight to the problem.”
“We don’t see anything soon that will get us out of it. There is a high likelihood of anything between total shutdown and bankruptcy in the coming months, and that leaves all the community beneficiaries in a very dire situation.”
Some tourist operations in other parts of the country have not been hit as hard, as their locations lend themselves to day trips by people wanting to get out of the city. Feynan’s location in southern Jordan makes day trips from Amman impractical. It takes three hours to get from the capital to the Ecolodge, including half an hour off-road in pickup trucks.
To date, Feynan has survived on low-interest loans. “We never made profits to the level of losses that we’ve had,” Tarazi said. “Even in recovery, by the time we recoup the losses of this year, it’s going to take us three or four years.”
A best case scenario for foreign tourists returning to Jordan would be October “and if my prediction is correct, we will not survive until October, he said.
“In the back of my mind, there’s some glimmer of hope that we will see movement in March-April, and if we do, it would help a bit. But even if we get people, it’s going to be really trickling.”
The lodge is doing disinfecting, distancing, and using personal protective equipment, he said “If tourism come back, I know we can handle them and be safe.”
Jordan’s government is covering less than 20 per cent of payroll since December. “We were hoping that support would be much, much more, and at an earlier stage.”
To continue the lodge’s operations on a shoestring budget until the tourism sector recovers, “we’re probably looking at $150,000 (in new capital) to allow us to stay afloat.”
“I can guarantee that if nothing happens by May-June, there’s no way (to stay open).”
An Amman TV station recently recorded a program on Feynan’s plight. Tarazi has slashed prices, offered new promotions, and hopes that will result in some local visitors.
People can now fly into Jordan if they have an approved COVID test, but “I don’t think people are in a mood to travel from outside, and with the risk of getting sick in a foreign country.”
“Nobody in their wildest dreams would have imagined a small virus to cause the total collapse of the world economic system, and obviously tourism is the biggest sector to get hit from that.”