Sultanate of Oman and Jordan lead the way in the Middle East for the development of responsible tourism and are model examples for others in the region to follow, an industry expert says. Justin Francis, co-founder of the pioneering travel website, responsibletravel.com, says Oman and Jordan have been consistently active in implementing sustainable strategies for tourism promotion in a region with “brilliant opportunities” to capitalise on.
Oman’s embrace of ‘responsible tourism’ as the bedrock philosophy of its tourism development strategy was reaffirmed at the 4th International Conference on Responsible Tourism held in Muscat last October. A number of international organizations participated in the event aimed at supporting the Sultanate’s effort in pursuing a sustainable path to tourism development.
Accordingly, tourism development in a number of locations deemed ecologically unique and fragile will be based on responsible tourism practices. These locations include Jabal al Akhdar — home to remarkable biodiversity, Ras al Jinz — a coastal swathe well-known for its marine and natural ecology, and the Jiddat al Harasis — a largely barren desertscape, but nevertheless a habitat for endangered and protected species, notably the Arabian Oryx.
“Oman has a commendable approach to embracing responsible tourism and has been working to promote that for a number of years”, said Francis, who will address delegates at the second World Green Tourism conference in Abu Dhabi in December. “Similarly, Jordan has made great strides forward in terms of its commitment to responsible tourism. We have worked closely with the country in developing a guide to Jordan and it has a wealth of local stories to tell, and is embracing them”. Francis will spotlight current consumer trends in travel related to responsible tourism when he joins an international line-up of speakers at the World Green Tourism conference taking place at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC) from December 5-7. Organised by Streamline Marketing Group, World Green Tourism, the first commercial conference and exhibition specifically for the sustainable tourism sector, is hosted by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) and the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi.
In 2001, inspired by a village elder on a visit to Kawaza village in Zambia, Francis wrote his MSc dissertation on establishing a portal for responsible travel. He launched responsibletravel.com a year later as “the first business in the world to talk about responsible travel and tourism.” His backers included the late Dame Anita Roddick, environmental campaigner and founder of The Body Shop. His UK-based organisation has since worked with hundreds of tourism businesses to screen them for the site, and to help them improve their policies.
In 2004, Francis founded the world’s largest award scheme for responsible holidays, the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards. Since its inception in 2004 more than 11,000 nominations have been received from the public, highlighting the importance of the way consumer trends impact the future direction of the tourism industry. Francis also devised successful campaigns to persuade travel giants Thomson Holidays, Thomas Cook and MyTravel to publish policies for responsible tourism.
“For countries in the Middle East, as in any destination, if there is a real desire from organisations, tourism providers and opinion formers, a lot can be achieved” said Francis. “There’s a very strong foundation for some brilliant opportunities moving forward and we need to focus on those”. The commitment to preserving the natural and cultural heritage in the region was highlighted recently with Jordan’s Wadi Rum, the ancient villages of Northern Syria and the cultural sites of Al Ain in the UAE being granted world heritage status by Unesco. Wadi Rum joined three other sites in Jordan, Petra, Quseir Amra and Um er-Rasas, on the Unesco list.
“The Middle East, as with all tourism destinations around the world, has an important role to play in the future development of sustainable tourism”, Francis added. “The announcements of Al Ain, Wadi Rum and the ancient villages in Syria as Unesco world heritage sites are examples of the work that has already been put into preserving their proud cultural heritage.”
As with most Middle East countries, tourism is a crucial element to economic growth in Oman and Jordan. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the expected contribution from travel and tourism to Oman’s GDP for 2011 is $1.9 billion (three percent of GDP), generating 35,000 jobs directly (3.2 percent of total employment). The country is expected to attract 1.2 million international tourists.