Wadi Rum gains World Heritage status

On 25 June, UNESCO announced that Wadi Rum, a protected area of desert in southern Jordan, had been added to the list of World Heritage Sites for both its natural drama and cultural significance.

For Rum background, click here, herehere and here.

Few outsiders know Wadi Rum as well as British climbers Tony Howard and Di Taylor. Since their first visit 27 years ago, Tony and Di have been exploring trekking paths and climbing routes all across these rugged landscapes in partnership with the Bedouin, bringing local knowledge to a global audience with unique sensitivity and insight. Several books have resulted, notably Treks and Climbs in Wadi Rum and its partner volume Jordan: Walks, Treks, Caves, Climbs and Canyons. Tony remains an authority on sustainable adventure tourism to Jordan and many other destinations – his publications list takes in Norway, Oman, England and Palestine. His most recent book, Troll Wall, describes his pioneering 1965 ascent of Europe’s tallest rock face. Tony returns to Wadi Rum every year, staying for weeks at a time with the Bedouin.

When the news of Rum’s UNESCO listing broke, I asked Tony if he would like to contribute an article for this website. I’m delighted he said yes. This is what he wrote:

Wadi Rum’s UNESCO World Heritage status has been a long time coming. Some may say it’s not come soon enough; others wonder if it should have happened at all. But Lawrence‘s “Rum the magnificent” is more than deserving – its natural and archaeological wonders are outstanding and both the Old Testament and the Holy Koran are believed to make reference to its culture.

Why then any concern? For many, the main worry is can the area and its people – the Bedouin – cope with the huge increase in tourism that the designation of World Heritage Site will bring? Despite the best efforts of Jordan’s RSCN to protect the core area, it already shows signs of overuse: one must accept that Rum village has grown out of all proportion – when we first arrived in 1984, only Bedouin tents and half a dozen houses surrounded Rum’s fort – but the valley-wide proliferation of vehicle tracks that now head south from the village to the tourism hotspots can hardly be described as welcome. Nor can the ever-increasing number of ‘tourist camps’ which already dot most of the valleys. It is, of course, good that as always the local people are taking the initiative, but while some of these camps are discreet and well managed, others are incongruous – and some are not even owned by Bedouin.

One wonders what type of accommodation the new Rum will have, and where, and how that new accommodation will impact on the site and the ongoing success of the existing Bedouin-run tourist camps.

At peak periods in Rum there are already too many tourists. What then, when the numbers double (as they could)? What effect will that have on the ambience of Rum, its quiet valleys and those people still trying to live their lives peaceably, in the desert? Will outsiders with no knowledge of Rum, its wild places, its culture, its tourism be drafted in as guides and drivers? What new rules and regulations will appear? Will the almost year-round mainstay of Rum’s sustainable tourism – the environmentally aware adventure tourists, trekkers and climbers enjoying what’s been dubbed the world’s best desert climbing area – be faced, as they are in Petra, with ill-considered and impossible demands to hire guides, when in truth guides are not needed by those with sufficient experience? Already Rum has insufficient guides for those visitors who do require them.

And will any of this benefit the area – and more importantly its people? If the evidence of the Wadi Rum Visitor Centre is anything to go by, the answer is probably not. Prior to its construction in 2004, the Bedouin of Rum could wait in their houses until it was their turn in the rota to drive tourists into the desert. Now all the drivers must go 7km to the Visitor Centre and sit around all day waiting for business. No shelter is provided for them. All these cars doing miles of pointless driving pumps unnecessary pollutants into the valley air every day.

So if Rum’s new World Heritage status is to protect the area and benefit its people, its culture and its visitors (both adventure tourists and mainstream tourists), a lot of work has to be done – and quickly. Let us hope that those who undertake this task will work fully with the local people to understand their needs – and the needs of all types of tourists.

Article is © Tony Howard, 27/06/2011. Author contact here.