By Hana Namrouqa

AMMAN – Eco-tourism in Jordan is expanding and attracting more visitors, with more than one million tourists visiting the Kingdom’s diverse nature reserves and protected areas last year, officials said on Tuesday.

Around 975,000 tourists visited the Petra National Park in 2010, while 500,000 visited the country’s nature reserves last year, according to experts and officials in the eco-tourism sector.

“As the number of tourists to Jordan’s nature reserves increased, economic conditions of local communities around the reserves have boomed. Over JD1.5 million was generated from eco-tourism activities in the Kingdom’s different reserves last year, excluding Wadi Rum,” Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) Director Yehya Khaled said yesterday.

He made the remarks during a workshop organised by the USAID-funded Jordan Parks Project, RSCN and the Ministry of Environment about best practices in management of protected areas.

“Nature reserves are the last line of defence that protects ecosystems from deterioration and loss; they act as warehouses for germplasms for millions of plants and animals, and thus they shouldn’t be viewed as luxuries or obstacles in the face of development,” Khaled said yesterday.

The Kingdom is home to eight nature reserves in Dana, Azraq, Shomari, Mujib, Ajloun, Wadi Rum, Dibbeen and the Yarmouk River Basin, which contain different ecosystems and preserve locally and globally threatened fauna and flora.

The number is set to rise to 16, three of which will be launched this year: Qatar, Fifa and Jabal Masouda.

Ramzi Maaytah, project management specialist at USAID’s economic growth office, yesterday said eco-tourism in Jordan is considered one of the main pillars of the sector due to the Kingdom’s diverse natural landscapes and sceneries, which constitute unique tourist destinations.

“Eco-tourism has developed in recent years in protected areas including Petra, Dana, Wadi Feynan, Wadi Rum, Ajloun, Dubeen and Azraq,” he noted.

But experts highlighted that despite the booming eco-tourism industry, Jordan’s unique nature reserves face several challenges.

“The major challenges we seek to address are people’s view of reserves as obstacles to development projects, the need to regulate land use around the reserves as well as resources for sustaining its infrastructure and socio-economic projects,” Khaled underscored.

He highlighted that Jordan’s reserves lack employees specialised in the management of such areas.

RSCN’s people-centred approach to protected area management was first piloted in 1994 in the Dana Biosphere Reserve, through the establishment of a range of tourism facilities, including a campsite, guesthouse and eco-lodge, according to the society.

Inspired by the success of the initiative, RSCN has been replicating the Dana model in all its protected areas, including the Mujib, Azraq and Ajloun nature reserves, providing a series of outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking and abseiling to engage visitors during their stay.