Ecolodge founder promotes experiential travel
5 minute read
Nabil Tarazi wants to move people’s vacations from sightseeing to sight doing, or experiential travel.
Tarazi, founder and managing director of EcoHotels, is also treasurer and an executive board member of the Global EcoTourism Network. The network encourages people to seek out destinations where their spending will support local communities and not just international hotel chains.
He believes everyone benefits when travellers “go places and meet people, learn about the community.”
“What we do here at Feynan, and any project we get involved with is experiential travel.”
Feynan has won many international honors for its approach, with awards from National Geographic, Trip Advisor and Traveller’s Choice.
Over the past nine years, Tarazi has worked to change Feynan from just a hotel to a destination where people can spend several days exploring.
A group of MEDA supporters who visited the lodge in February were treated to several hikes in the surrounding desert. A sunset hike included climbing hills overlooking the Jordan portion of the Rift Valley.
The Great Rift Valley is a contiguous geographic trench, approximately 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles) in length, that runs from Lebanon to Mozambique in Southeastern Africa.
That hike included a tea service over an open fire, and a discussion about the ecological devastation caused by Romans who occupied what is now Jordan more than 2,000 years ago. After the Romans found copper deposits, they needed to heat rocks to 1,200 degrees to extract the small percentage of copper. To fuel the needed fires, slaves deforested the area, which became polluted with smog. Evidence of the slag is still visible.
So much burning happened in this process that recently researchers found carbon in the Arctic ice cap that they dated back to Feynan.
On a second hike, visitors were shown the harsh beauty of the desert canyons, herds of goats tended by Bedouin families, and the practical necessities, including medicinal herbs and soap, that residents extract from the landscape. “We believe the pharmacy is nature,” noted Suleiman Hasaseen, the group’s 29-year old guide.
The white broom tree is used to heal wolf bites on goats, as well as treating back pain and providing mattresses for baby goats and fasteners for tents, Hasaseen said.
Ascending a steep rock face as if it were small stairs, he cut off a small piece of another plant, ground it up and mixed it with a capful of water to show how it can be used for washing hands or clothes.
Hasaseen, who was born and raised a short distance from the ecolodge, spoke limited English when he began working for Feynan in 2011. Through practice and frequent exposure to visitors, he is now the lodge’s most fluent English speaker, Tarazi said.
On clear nights, guests are given a rooftop tour of the night sky, what Feynan calls “some of the best stargazing in Jordan.”
Other explorations can include spending the day with a local shepherd learning about goat herding, scrambling through dramatic slot canyons, mountain biking, exploring 11,000-year-old archaeological sites that go back to the earliest civilizations, or making traditional Arabic dishes with the lodge’s chef.
A highlight of a MEDA visit to Feynan in February was a coffee ceremony held in a Bedouin elder’s goat herd tent. Coffee is highly regarded, but a luxury rather than an everyday beverage in Bedouin culture.
Mixed with ground cardamom pods and heated over an open fire, coffee made in the Bedouin ceremony is used to welcome visitors, settle disputes and as part of marriage proposal meetings.
All these activities support the local communities. Feynan rotates through area families who receive income from hosting visitors. Jobs are hard to come by in an impoverished region where opportunities are scarce.
Jordan’s official unemployment rate is 18 per cent, but it is over 23 per cent for women, and as high as 30 per cent for people under the age of 30.
Providing employment opportunities for more people will require more efforts to promote secondary tourist sites such as Feynan, says Ahsan-ul-Haque Helal, country director for MEDA’s Jordan Valley Links project.
“Most of the tourists, their primary destination is either Petra (south of Feynan) or Aqaba (the country’s only coastal city),” he said.
Tarazi is convinced that the work he has done at Feynan is transferable. He plans to try the model elsewhere. “When I first started, I was never interested in doing just one lodge.”
Geopolitical instability earlier this decade led to a slump in tourism, forcing him to focus on Feynan’s survival. More recently, he has done consulting for a project near Petra that will eventually become a lodge. In northern Jordan near Umm Qais, the company that owns the Movenpick chain wants to develop a project around a hot springs area.
Tarazi is about to sign a management agreement for the latter project. “We will not replicate the exact activities. Each one will have its own identity, but it’s following that same ethos.”
He has also had inquiries from a group in Sudan and was prepared to fly there this spring to investigate until the latest political crisis put that effort on hold. ◆