31 Jul 2017
Madaba, Jordan
Sustainable Tourism

Visit Wadi Al Hidan today, and you will find an outdoor lover’s paradise. The wadi is a naturally occurring basalt canyon that twists its way through volcanic mountains and the Mujib Biosphere Reserve, all the way down to the Dead Sea. Time has eroded the black stone, creating a dozen pools of varying lengths and depths. Explore further to discover three waterfalls, one of which forms a natural water slide on which adventurers plunge into the cool waters below. Past visitors have affectionately named the area “Jordan’s Natural Waterpark”.

Anees Braizat, a native of the area, started visiting Wadi Al Hidan long before it became a popular tourist destination. Braizat grew up in the nearby village of Muleyh near the town of Madaba, and the wadi played a central role in his childhood family outings. He learned to swim in the natural pools and would, as a teenager, bring friends to marvel at the sight. Given these memories, it is perhaps appropriate that Braizat’s mission in adulthood is to maintain the beauty and biodiversity of Wadi Al Hidan for many more generations. He is the Founder and Director of Alhidan Adventures Center, the ecotourism company that runs hiking and canyoning tours in the wadi.

Reviving Wadi Al Hidan:

Wadi Al Hidan was not always the paradise it is today. In fact, the government had shuttered access to the wadi until very recently, fearing its unique biodiversity was on the verge of irreversible damage.

“People were running irresponsible trips,” Braizat remembers. “Visitors were throwing rubbish, making fires with the plants, and hurting the wildlife. People didn’t care about nature, they cared about making money.” An accident in 2015 brought the issue of overcrowding to the forefront. One company brought a tour group of 300 travellers to the wadi, and had them cross one of the waterfalls with a single rope. A visitor broke his leg, and could not be rescued until 2 a.m. the next day. After that, the government closed the wadi.

In 2016, Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) put out an announcement looking for tour operators who could run the wadi according to global standards. They wanted to find a responsible ecotourism company to reintroduce visits to Wadi Al Hidan. Braizat had been serving as a local tour guide for four years and saw an opportunity to save his childhood adventure spot. He created Alhidan Adventures Center and were the only local company to apply for the opportunity. Braizat now operates tours in the wadi in partnership with Wild Jordan, RSCN’s ecotourism arm.

Protecting the wadi — and its visitors:

Protecting — and restoring — the natural environment of the wadi is one of Alhidan Adventure Center’s main missions. Braizat and his team spend one day each week cleaning the wadi, in addition to removing rubbish with every tour group. “We also give visitors a small introductory guidance speech at the start of the trek to inform them about the nature reserve and to ask them to enjoy the wadi without making any change,” Braizat adds.

The center also wants to make sure the 2015 incident is not replicated. As such, its guides are trained in wilderness first aid and lifeguarding, and have taken other courses on how to successfully and safely run adventure trips. All visitors are given life jackets and encouraged to use one of the helmets provided. As for the number of visitors, it is capped at 35 people per trip, a far cry from the 300 that used to make the trek daily.

Saleh Al-Bazz visited Wadi Al Hidan in July 2016. The Jordanian-Canadian was in Amman visiting family, and went on the Alhidan Adventures Center tour with his sister, cousin, and two friends. Al-Bazz describes himself as “an accountant who loves science,” and the ecological element of Alhidan Adventures Center made the tours rather appealing.

“They spoke to us about what the area used to be like, and about the effects of global warming. The guides also knew a lot about the types of plants and animals that lived there,” Al-Bazz recalls. “They really made that a day to remember. Sort of like — when someone tells you to picture yourself in a calm place, the memory of that day is what I would recall.” He says the friendly and professional staff made sure no one was doing anything that would compromise the environment during their day-long visit.

The environment of Wadi Al Hidan is what attracted Italian traveller Silvia Coppola to take three of Alhidan Adventure Center’s trips in summer 2016. She says she appreciated the friendliness of the guides, and enjoyed learning about the plants, animals, and birds found in the wadi. “They let us see how capers grow wild in that area, and grow in different varieties,” she recalls of one of her hikes.

Community benefits of ecotourism:

Alhidan Adventures Center benefits not the company as well as the surrounding Dhiban District in Madaba. During the RSCN’s announcement for proposals, Braizat was the only local to apply. During weekends and high season, Braizat brings on up to 16 university students who are working towards tourism-related degrees, and have completed other guiding courses.

Jordan’s burgeoning ecotourism sector:

Ecotourism is an increasingly popular sub-industry in Jordan. One reason for that is government support — despite being an independent NGO, RSCN has been tasked with the public mandate to care for and protect the country’s biodiversity. It is one of the only voluntary organizations in the region to have been given such a mission.

RSCN and Wild Jordan first spearheaded ecotourism initiatives in 1994, and slowly worked to raise public awareness and acceptance of ecotourism in a country and region that were unfamiliar with the concept. More than two decades in, Jordan has nine protected nature areas.

According to Wild Jordan, they have partnered with Ministry of Education to teach more Jordanian children about the natural heritage found within the country’s borders, through establishing new, RSCN-supported nature clubs in schools across Jordan.

“Ecotourism in Jordan has three main goals,” says Osama Hasan, the Head of Eco-Tourism and Interpretation Development at RSCN. “We want to bring in money for our conservation programs, create jobs for the local people living inside and around protected areas, and raise awareness for Jordanians so they have a better understanding of the country’s natural heritage.”

Found in the Mujib Biosphere Reserve, an RSCN protected area bordering the Dead Sea, Wadi Al Hidan fits all three criteria. Located a 1.5 hour drive from Amman, Alhidan Adventures Center’s location is already a popular tourist destination. Since the first tours in July 2016, Alhidan Adventures Center has served 3,700 customers, about 80% of whom are Jordanian.

With more than 22,000 visitors to the Mujib Biosphere Reserve each year, there is a lot of growth potential for Wadi Al Hidan. Even so, Braizat says the company is going to evolve cautiously and consciously, to avoid disrupting the environment. One future plan is to create a series of campsites so people can spend the entire night in a place that is both wild and safe. Another idea is to provide each visitor with a reusable plastic water bottle so they reduce their impact on other nature reserves.

If Braizat and the center have it their way, thousands will continue to enjoy Wadi Al Hidan for years to come — but this time, they will do it responsibly.



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Photos: Courtesy of Alhidan Adventures Center

Hilary is a journalist, photographer, and maker of things. She loves working with entrepreneurs to share their stories and has done so around the world.Hilary Duff
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Alhidan Adventures Center Sustainable tourism