Ecotourism is one of the fastest growing segments in the global tourism industry and the Middle East is no exception. The ecotourism industry, catalyzed by advancements in transportation and information technology, has brought hitherto unknown geographical landscapes into public limelight, thus bringing tourists to pristine natural locations across the Middle East.
Middle East has also been witnessing growing popularity of ecotourism among native and expatriate populations. Some of the Middle East nations popular with ecotourists include Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt, Oman and Tunisia. Due to its sunny climate, unique landscape, distinct culture and rich history, the region offers wealth of opportunities for ecotourists including but not limited to vast deserts, special flora and fauna, exotic animal species and stunning beaches.
In recent years, there has been significant increase in the number of eco-retreats in countries like UAE, Qatar and Oman. Local tourists are showing keen interest in staying at resorts that focus on environmentally-responsible and sustainable practices. In addition, tourists from the region, especially families, are traveling to far-off places, such as Southeast Asia and Cyprus, for nature-based activities like snorkeling, kayaking, trekking and bird-watching which is a welcome sign for the natural tourism industry.
Jordan – A Role Model
Jordan has been one of the earliest pioneers of ecotourism in the Middle East. The country has acknowledged ecotourism as a key cluster that can mainstream economic and social development within environmental protection. Jordan has 10 natural reserves that provide tourists with exceptional experience in enjoying nature and helping communities.
The Jordanian experience in ecotourism has gained global recognition and became a model for partnerships between the government, NGOs and local communities. Infact, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) has reported that its ecotourism projects in 2015 generated more than USD 2 million, when 175,000 people visited the nature reserves, 65 per cent of whom were foreigners.
For ecotourism to flourish and achieve its development vision in the Middle East, several enablers need to be in place. “Governments, private sector and international agencies would need to work together to provide a conducive legal and regulatory framework, access to land, financing instruments, local human and institutional capacity development, attractive investment climate as well as convenient and affordable transportation”, explains Ruba Al-Zu’bi, Scientific Research Director at Shoman Foundation. “In addition, enabling more local innovation and social entrepreneurship would really be the added value to sustain the future of ecotourism in the region”, she adds.
Exaggerated extravagance is another key issue that needs to be addressed by stakeholders in eco-tourism industry in the Middle East. “I think elegant architecture and interior furnishings are perfectly acceptable elements of an ecotourism attraction, and usually the locals do it best, but there is a tendency in the Middle East to be excessively flashy which may be discouraging to nature tourists”, says Tafline Laylin, an environmental journalist and travel writer.