By: Javier Valdez
When I received the email that I was selected to receive the Jordan Fellowship to join Tourism Cares with Jordan, I was elated. To be selected among 67 influential world leaders in sustainable tourism was an incredible honor and privilege, especially as a small, NYC-based startup with big dreams to create meaningful change in the travel industry.
Growing up, I listened to stories of John the Baptist and Jesus that referenced Middle East locations, which I now know to be in Jordan. In high school, I took a class that focused on the great mystery of the rise and fall of the ancient civilization in Petra. Personally, as a history buff, I reveled in the idea that I would soon be standing in the presence of great monuments and sites of biblical and historical significance.
More importantly, I was energized for the the mission of our delegation - to become a Jordan expert, engage the Jordanian government and industries in corporate social responsibility and sustainable tourism matters, learn what Jordanian social enterprises are doing and help promote their work, volunteer and give back to the community and as always, view tourism through a social impact lens.
However, in the mix of excitement, I also felt a tinge of uncertainty. I never traveled to Jordan before, or any Middle Eastern country for that matter, and despite the history I’d studied, I knew little of modern day Middle East except for headlines in the news. Little did I know that my view of the country and its hospitality would make a 180 in the following days.
Travel is usually an emotional experience for me, but my visit to Jordan was extraordinary.
Upon the second evening of my arrival, I joined members of the delegation in a joyful evening of company and conversation when I was struck with a sense of familiarity. A flour-y fragrance wafted through the outdoor patio and filled me with nostalgia. I followed it to find a small, wrinkled woman, with a straight spine and legs folded in front and elbows working to roll out a large, thin disk of Shrak - a traditional Arabic bread. Another disk was already baking on an outdoor oven beside her work station.
This scene took me back to my first international trip as a seventeen year old - visiting my grandmother in Hermosillo, Mexico, a sprawling city with a landscape that includes both desert and mountains. As a teen, I impatiently watched my grandmother skillfully and efficiently manipulate balls of dough to magically create uniformly thin, round tortillas that stretched from her wrist to her armpit - I dubbed them “armpit tortillas.” As soon as they crisped to perfection, I’d snatch them up and gobble down the delicious treat. A string a curse words followed, but I didn’t mind! I was happy to repeat again, and again.
Tortilla-snatching and appetite-ruining aside, my trip to Mexico opened up a new world view for me - one that showed a different story from urban Southern California I’d known about. In Mexico, I saw families living houses with dirt floors and sometimes no roofs. I saw children working to support their families. I saw a bleak outlook with no upward mobility in the future. That trip was a turning point and today still motivates me to pursue my dream of harnessing the power of travel to create real, sustainable change in communities around the world.
During my journey through Jordan, I covered myself with mineral-rich mud and floated in the Dead Sea, I watched breathtaking sunsets that illuminated the sky with a deep red hue, reflecting the soil and sand, I gorged on delicious, traditional foods served in family-style way, shared with the other delegates, Jordanian government and community members on the trip.
Tourist destinations aside, we delved into unfrequented spots as part of the social impact track, one of three designed for the delegates. These included the Bani Hamid Women’s Weaving Project and Iraq Al Amir women’s cooperative Association. Both organizations were founded to empower women financially and preserve local heritage. The theme of the social impact track was to explore way which enterprises and organizations can develop sustainable livelihoods.
Listening to the stories of women impacted by these projects, I felt their sense of pride as trailblazing women, unbound by rigid gender roles set by tradition and culture. One woman who started out as a volunteer for the organization said that she felt that through the cooperative, she was able to help change and shape the culture around women’s roles. In the community, she was the first woman to drive a car and work outside the home. The establishments also had one very unexpected result: It brought families closer together. As women were able to bring more income into the household, fewer men left the community to find work in the cities. The overarching theme seemed to be that all the women who participated had more financial stability as well as a skilled vocation of weaving beautiful wool rugs and tapestries, traditional paper making or pottery.
These women shared their knowledge with our delegation - I fumbled through a hands-on lesson in a traditional weaving technique and helped cook a communal meal alongside the other delegates and women of the cooperative.
We cooked Manakish, flat dough similar to pizza topped with thyme, melty cheese and well-seasoned ground meat. Together, we broke bread with these inspiring women. And while I didn’t become a master weaver or chef, I did leave the centers with a full belly and heart, feeling just a little more connected to the Jordanian people.
Our last evening as a delegation was spent at the Ammarin Bedouin Camp, a few minutes walk from Little Petra. Before visiting Jordan, I had never heard of the Bedouin, desert dwelling, indigenous and nomadic communities. I learned tourists can opt to support this community by choosing the Ammarin Bedouin Camp as their accommodation while traveling and experience living history and nature. I could have never imagined an entire peoples living in the open desert, with nothing but tents or caves to shield them from the elements, especially in a harsh climate. The Bedouin people however, welcomed our curiosity into their camps, supplied seemingly unending food and drink, held our hands, sang us songs and together, cultural and language differences aside, we danced our last night away.
These experiences ground my conviction to continue my work as a social entrepreneur to inspire travelers, agents, suppliers and influencers to work together to create sustainable practices. By sustainability, I’m following the World Commission on Environment and Development’s definition: “forms of progress that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” When applied to an entire industry, travel can become a force for good - empowering local and global communities economically, environmentally, and culturally.
Like most complex, global issues, changing the travel industry doesn’t happen overnight, and there’s no silver bullet. However, the partnership between Tourism Cares and the Jordanian Tourism board is a solid start. In just under 1-week, my perception of the country had done a 180. With careful, intentional planning, the trip showed me the best of Jordan while highlighting the organizations that use tourism as fuel to finance community empowerment and preserve culture and traditions. As demonstrated, from the luxury, solar-powered Marriott to the Bedouin camp, from a traditional feast served at our evening reception to making our own meal, sustainability takes on many forms, and is possible to incorporate at any level to suit the traveler’s comfort. To learn and apply best practices to your business I recommend taking a moment to experience My Jordan Journey.
As a travel agency owner and consultant, I firmly believe that our role extends beyond simply booking travel. It’s our responsibility to thoughtfully advise and educate travelers on sustainability practices. Only in this way do we hold the power to accelerate change towards a more promising future for tourism - one that improves communities and lives around the globe. If being a global citizen isn’t incentive enough, research has proven that adopting sustainability into your business is more than an a feel-good gesture — it’s a shrewd investment with long-term environmental, social and financial benefits. In my own experience, an authentic travel brand has been key to differentiating my business from others, opened many doors and created opportunities beyond my imagination.