15 Aug 2017
Salt, Jordan
Sustainable Food and Agriculture, Sustainable Tourism

When picturing tourism in Jordan, the mind is likely to imagine journeys to the historical city of Petra, or a day spent floating in the Dead Sea. That is something Rudaina Haddad, the founder of Jordan’s most prominent agritourism business, is hoping to change.

Haddad saw the need for agritourism first hand while serving as a tour guide at Jordan’s many archaeological wonders, including Petra: “every time I left a site in a rural community, my group and I would be bombarded by locals offering a home visit and wondering where the group was spending their money,” she remembers, noting that most tourism dollars go to travel companies based in Amman or to souvenir shops selling Chinese or Indian handicrafts. “I thought yes, they are very right, so why not take the visitors to their homes?”

That is why Haddad launched Bookagri in September 2016 — a business connecting visitors with authentic Jordanian culture and heritage. She says this was a gap in the country’s existing tourism sector. “When I was guiding, we were eating in restaurants that provided a Lebanese menu,” she says. “There was no opportunity to find out about rural life in Jordan.” Now, Bookagri offers meaningful experiences and culture, all while employing more locals, empowering women and farmers, and helping boost Jordan’s tourism reputation.

Her agritourism efforts are well timed. As Jordan’s population become more educated, many farmers are selling their land to afford tuition costs for their children. That land is often sold and covered in concrete, at least temporarily ending its life as agricultural space. By empowering locals to use their farm as a greater source of revenue, Haddad hopes they can see their land as a financially viable option.

Experiencing the real rural Jordan:

Bookagri’s core travel experiences are ones that involve visitors getting up close and personal with the lives of Jordanian farmers. That is done in a few ways. The first is through bed-and-breakfast lodging. Bookagri worked with three Jordanians to prepare their homes for accommodation, and ensure they are serving a local menu and experience.

Micheal Jadaa is one of the residents who has two bed-and-breakfast locations operating through Bookagri. For the project, he created a natural cave on his farm: a large cavern carved into stone, complete with a bedroom, seating area, fireplace, and wine cellar. Jadaa’s properties are advertised under the apt name “The Cave Sleepover.” The other bed-and-breakfasts are small environmentally friendly chalets that are easy to assemble and collapse, minimizing the damage that can be caused by concrete foundations.

For travelers desiring a little more privacy, there is also the opportunity to rent a location as a Farmstay. “Many people who come to Jordan spend time in rural areas, but the major issue is that there are no facilities or places for them to go,” Haddad explains. Through Bookagri, farmers can post their entire property for rent by visitors. The idea is that travelers not only benefit one farmer by staying in their home, they also help the entire community as they contact them for services and food.

Bookagri also offers farm tours where visitors can see how produce is grown from scratch — and then taste some of that food for themselves. Each of Bookagri’s experiences, including the agritourism tour, is coordinated by a local community member who interprets the farm activities for the group of travelers and their guide. So far the primary language spoken is Arabic, but Haddad says they are working on English training so the experience is more accessible for independent travellers who may not have an Arabic speaking guide.

Agritourism showcases local products, produce:

Speaking of food — descriptions of Jordanian cuisine is enough to make your mouth water.

Haddad describes dishes such as musakhan, where onion fried with sumac and olive oil is combined with chicken and prepared on a layer of oven-baked dough. There is also khabiesah: cooked grape juice dried on cloth sheets and mixed with pine, black cumin, and nuts to create what resembles a fruit roll. Lamb meat is simmered and slow-cooked in a yogurt mixture to create mansaf, one of Jordan’s most popular dishes. These foods and others are what will make up the menu at the bed-and-breakfasts and farmstays.

Need something for takeaway? No problem. Bookagri has also launched a weekly farmers market where small-scale producers, mostly women, sell everything from pine seeds to olive oils, locally made soap to farmers salads.

Producing artisanal items is not new for farmers — what is new, however, is the way it is packaged and presented to the public. “Before the food was rarely appropriately packaged for sale,” Haddad says, pointing to the use of plastic wrap and bottles which were harmful for the environment and preserving fresh food.

To counter this, Bookagri works with farmers to create properly packaged and branded foodstuff. Those products are branded under the Bookagri name, and the business receives a cut of sales — still, Haddad says it opens the farmers to a market they otherwise would not be able to access. “The customers are very excited about this, and we now have good products that are certified to standards you would find in the store,” she says.

Um Hassan is one of the local farmers who sells at the Friday farmers market. She produces fragrant za’atar (thyme) and oregano mixes with spices harvested from different parts of Jordan. Um Hassan also makes khabiesah, the fruit roll made with cooked grape juice, and jams. By selling at the market, she saved 1,000 Jordanian Dinar ($1,400) so her daughter can afford the transportation to Canada where she has received a medical school scholarship.

Another farmer impacted by the business is Um Nidal, a mother of eight living in Balqa Governorate. Through agritours, visitors observe her daily life and chores at her home. Um Nidal sells bread, free-range eggs, buttermilk, goat butter, and other products to guests, and one of the visitors was so impacted by the home visit that they donated the amount of money Um Nidal needed to buy a larger bread-making machine.

Farmers like Um Hassan and Um Nidal — as well as each of the handpicked residents involved in Bookagri’s experiences — have received agritourism training from Haddad and her team. From tips about hygiene and hospitality to creating an experience that is customized to each farm, Haddad says her goal is to enhance what farmers have to offer by giving them the right tools and training to engage travelers. Each host has also received training around gender acceptance, to ensure they are okay with welcoming guests of both sexes into their homes.

Agritourism: a growing opportunity across Jordan:

Haddad has an ambitious vision for Bookagri. First, she plans to apply her agritourism model in other Jordanian governorates, fostering a sustainable tourism sector based not just on archaeological wonders, but rural life, too. “I want to show people across the country that their skills and farms have value and can generate income,” Haddad says passionately. “They do not need professional degrees — this is self-employment.”

Despite ecotourism’s fast-growing popularity and support in Jordan, agritourism is still a novelty. “So far the government in Jordan does not have any rules or regulations around such kinds of tourism,” says Haddad. In summer 2016, Jordan’s tourism ministry referenced agritourism as one of the high-demand areas in which it would focus its efforts over the coming years.

Bookagri has been supported by a partial grant agreement with USAID. The agency is working with Bookagri through a project promoting economic stability in the country through tourism. Financial support from that grant will help Bookagri through its first five years as the concept is rolled out to other parts of Jordan.

Haddad also has her sights set on expanding to other governorates in Jordan and developing Bookagri as a global brand. She has been keeping up with the boom in agritourism across Europe, Tunisia, and Lebanon, and is eyeing the market in India and the Philippines. After its launch in a few weeks, the Bookagri website will be available as a worldwide platform where farmers and agritourism operators can advertise their opportunities under the Bookagri banner.

“People have to invest in their natural resources, and agritourism is a way for more investment in the land, skills, and people,” Haddad says. “Agritourism is really a gold mine if people start it in the right way.” For Haddad, that is in Balqa Governorate today, but tomorrow is a new day and a new opportunity.



Website: www.bookagri.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/bookagrijo

Photos: Courtesy of Bookagri

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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