A long-time favorite for travelers venturing into the Middle East, Jordan is experiencing a boom in tourism, and officials are now making the nation more accessible for those seeking to explore its vast desert landscapes and impressive historical sites.
“Tourism is like oil for Jordan, but I say it's even better, as oil can run out," said Jordanian Tourism Minister Lina Annab during a speech in 2018.
In the first 10 months of 2018, the nation saw a sharp rise in visitors, bringing in USD4.5 billion in tourism revenue compared to USD4 billion during the same period in 2017, according to Jordan's Central Bank. Budget airlines are responding by adding new flights connecting Amman with European capitals to accommodate the rising volume, while state officials are organizing new transport services to help tourists reach the most visited sites, including Petra, the Dead Sea, and the Wadi Rum nature reserve.
Yet some visitors are bypassing these new conveniences in pursuit of adventure tourism opportunities offered by Jordan's unique landscapes. Taking advantage of the country's reputation for being among the safest in the region, more tourists are hitting the trails on foot and discovering the nation's natural beauty via 4X4 expeditions through valleys that seem to evade the passage of time.
Among the most sought out experiences is a long-distance trek along the 400-mile (644km) Jordan Trail. Inaugurated in 2015, the trail runs the length of the country, connecting the archeological ruins of the Hellenic city Umm Qais in the north, to the Red Sea port of Aqaba, in the south. Along the way, hikers can visit key sites referenced in the Bible, castles once used by crusading armies to launch attacks, as well as vast Roman ruins, including Jerash.
Not all trekkers will have the time or energy to complete the entire Jordan Trail, but the experience can be enjoyed in sections, and most hikers would be wise to include a stop at the Dead Sea in their itinerary to rest their feet and enjoy the many salt spas lining the coast.
The most popular section of the Jordan Trail runs from the Dana Biosphere Reserve to Petra. Dana is a 15th-century stone village perched on a cliff above a green valley that, if followed, will lead trekkers the long way to Petra via snaking river gorges dotted with eco-lodges and friendly hosts eager to accommodate an increasing flow of international backpackers.
Petra, itself, is Jordan's top tourism destination. With ornate tombs painstakingly carved to precision from its winding rose stone canyons, the sprawling archeological site was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. Yet despite the crowds such a declaration might draw, there are several options for visitors seeking adventures off the beaten path.
There are several private companies renting horses and off-road vehicles for those seeking to explore the area from a different vantage point. Local Bedouin communities also host visitors in desert tents and furnished caves, which are easily rented from websites like AirBnB.
Less than a two-hour drive south of Petra, visitors will find what is likely Jordan's most awe-inspiring landscape in the Wadi Rum Nature Reserve. Mammoth rock formations rise in waves from bare expanses of copper sand, creating something akin to a caravan of giants frozen at the gates of the Arabian Peninsula.
Nomadic Bedouin communities offer camel rides through the valleys of sand, bringing tourists between desert springs and arch formations, some of which contain narrow canyons that, if followed, will lead to rock art and hieroglyphics left centuries ago. There are also more specialized tour offerings ranging from one-day 4X4 tours to multi-day jeep expeditions with personal guides.
Tourists can hire drivers to take them through the colorful landscape, making stops at historical sites where the British officer T.E. Lawrence, of Lawrence of Arabia fame, once passed with a rebel army during the Arab Revolt of 1917-18. Guests can stay in desert encampments that offer local meat and rice dishes along with Bedouin tea, before retiring to canvas huts for the night. For the adventurous travelers who make the journey, the stars shine bright over Wadi Rum, as in many of the less-trodden areas in Jordan.