An unexpected stumble leads a young environmental activist into a deserted forest, and opens his eyes to the possibilities of ecotourism in the North of Jordan.
As you drive towards the landscapes of the north of Jordan from the mountains, heat warps the air and the pine trees appear on the horizon like a long caravan of dusty green carpets marching through the fields. From a distance, it would seem like these forests have been deserted for far too long, without any signs of civilization, but as you approach the northern part of the Jordan Valley, you pass through a narrow driveway that welcomes you with quirky recycling baskets, small lakes, and organized bushland.
Nestled under the trees lies a getaway designed to conserve the environment and improve the welfare of the local community. The idea of the Sharhabil Bin Hassneh EcoPark first came to life in the early 2000s. Abdelrahman Sultan, Assistant Director, was a young environmental visionary at the time, who believed in Jordan’s rich ecosystem diversity and saw huge potential in the area.
“There’s no doubt that the Jordan Valley is green, but most of it is private agricultural land. We don’t have the concept of a green open space that’s available for the public.” said Abdelrahman.
“We wanted to change that. After talking to the authorities, they gave us a 100 dunam (25 acres) land that only had 4 trees. Shortly afterwards, rain season began. Little did they know that everything was going to change after that. “I was shocked. Plants, grass and all kinds of herbs emerged out of nowhere, some were 4 meters high. The forest blossomed and thrived.”.
Abdelrahman decided to invite a botanist from Japan to identify all the plants that grew in this land. After studying the area for a while, his initial instinct proved to be right. The area did have huge potential. In fact, they have identified at least 250 types of blooming plants. Extensive research and a rapid assessment also unveiled 56 types of birds residing in the area, 18 of which are considered endangered species worldwide. That was when they decided to open the place to the public.
About a year and a half later, visitors were coming in from all over the world, in addition to many school and university students who made field trips to learn about the environment and all the species in the area. The park management realized that they had to set up facilities to accommodate these visitors. Shortly afterwards, they started having regional meetings at the park, which inspired them to find local caterers from the local community, and rent furniture and other items from local businesses. As simple as the place was at the time, everyone loved it.
As demand for visiting this piece of land grew, Abdelrahman’s vision grew as well. He managed to expand the size of the land from 100 dunams to 215 dunams (53 acres). He wanted to encourage ecotourism in the area, and he wanted to boost the local economy by benefitting neighboring communities in the north.
As the park became focused on environmental tourism, Abdelrahman built small cabins where people can spend the night in nature under the trees, organized adventure tourism activities including ziplining, hiking, and biking, and made meeting rooms that can host corporate events and retreats. He suddenly had a huge site to manage, and a huge site, according to Abdelrahman requires “continuous expansion and growth”.
“I applied for a grant from the USAID Jordan Local Enterprise Support Project, explaining that the park was missing a few things to truly live up to its potential: a small gift shop to showcase local products, a functional website, and training programs for our employees”.
USAID LENS approved the grant, and in a matter of months, the gift shop was up and running, and so was the website. In addition, USAID LENS funded training programs that the ecopark employees received on food safety, hospitality, ecotourism, etc.
Gender accessibility is another aspect that the ecopark has been a facilitator of. In the villages nearby, traditions restrict women from going out without being accompanied by a male family member. However, due to the safety of the park and the community aspect which it has fortified over the years, women picnickers are seen in the park regularly. This, according to Abdelrahman, is a huge milestone in overcoming social taboos. “We also have two full-time female employees from the local community who help out in the kitchen and around the park”.
Um Diaa is one of the newly-hired cooks in the park. She is a mother who has been cooking for her small family at home all her life. After she took several training programs on food safety, health standards, etc. facilitated by USAID LENS, she learned how to cook meals for 80+ people and became familiar with vegetarian dishes to cater to different people.
Every dinar spent goes straight into developing the ecopark and helping the community. The USAID LENS grant contributed to creating 5 jobs including a cook, a farmer, and a cleaner, and it resulted in increasing the revenue of around 20 Micro and Small Enterprises (MSEs) such as adventure tourism companies, local producers, cooks, and home-based businesses who supply products to the gift shop and many others.
“We recently hired a new site manager, a marketing expert, and a consultant to enhance different aspects of our work. I want to take this park to a completely different place” added Abdelrahman.
Hind and her sister Islam live in a village close to the park. They are regularly seen at the ecopark, sitting behind a table full of colorful accessories which they make at home and sell at different places and markets. According to them, the park is the perfect spot for selling their items. “We come here two or three times a week, mostly on weekends, to try and sell our items” said Hind. “We feel very welcome and safe here, everyone is so supportive unlike other places we’ve tried to sell our accessories in”. Since they started going to the ecopark, they have seen a 20% increase in their sales.
What first started as an open space for people from the local community became a leading environmental awareness hub, and a spot that brings together people from different areas and backgrounds to enhance the local community. “I want to show people that change is possible. I’m on a permanent high” said Abdelrahman. “What was a deserted, empty land in the north of Jordan over 15 years ago, has now become a vibrant ecotourism site. It’s incredible”.
For more information on the Sharhabil Bin Hasna Ecopark, please visit their website here.