Get on the bus

News via Alternative Egypt of an interesting little tourism start-up on Egypt’s south Sinai coast – the Bedouin Bus, run by a small group of community entrepreneurs who’ve clearly put their heads together, done some thinking and are ready to fulfil a need among their existing clients (both tourists and, intriguingly, locals) for decent, reliable transport on a route where no public transport currently exists. Good for them – all the details are on their website and their Twitter feed. They’ve got a bunch of interesting sponsors, all deeply involved in independent, sustainable, community-focused tourism in the area. I hope they succeed.

Which makes me wonder why this doesn’t happen more around the Middle East. There was this idea for the Falafel Bus, running on a regular hop-on-hop-off route between points of touristic interest in Israel, Jordan and Egypt – but, as I heard from a hostel owner in Jerusalem a couple of weeks ago, it’s already folded after less than three months. I’m not surprised. Awful, awful name, transparently attempting to raise a smile by defining what unites Israel and its neighbours – which is a very Israeli mindset, incidentally: you don’t find Jordanians or Egyptians hunting for warm and fuzzy points of cultural commonality with Israel. Funny that.

But the idea itself was all wrong – too big, too complicated, too expensive – and if the accuracy of the truly execrable map is anything to go by, completely unreliable to boot.

But that’s not to say smaller-style initiatives couldn’t work. I was just in Palestine. A tourist bus route that went from Bethlehem checkpoint to Bethlehem, Jericho, Taybeh, Ramallah and back to Qalandia could potentially draw independent travellers out of Jerusalem to see more of the West Bank. It would save on taxis, for sure.

There was talk in Nazareth of a private-sector initiative emerging to encourage tourists to visit Jenin, perhaps as part of a joint hotel package in both cities. But that would be expensive. Independent travel, with community-run buses reliably linking either side of the Jalameh checkpoint, perhaps also serving the superb ancient site of Sebastia nearby, would be more attractive to more people.

And Jordan is, frankly, crying out for something like this. A friend I know recently made enquiries about starting a tourist bus circuit around Jordan to entice independent travellers arriving by easyJet – to no avail: the quantity of paperwork and capital funds required to obtain a commercial permit put him off.

The only example I’m aware of is run by entrepreneur Charl Al-Twal, owner of the (excellent) 3-star Mariam Hotel in Madaba. For some years now he’s offered a private bus for tourists between Madaba and Petra along the scenic King’s Highway – a long, slow route avoided by normal buses, which all follow the quicker but duller Desert Highway further east.

But public transport around Jordan to sites of tourist interest is virtually non-existent – major UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as Umm Ar-Rasas, Quseir Amra and Wadi Rum, are effectively impossible to reach unless you’re on a tour or have private transport.

The trouble is Jordanians – and most tourists to Jordan, who come from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries – aren’t interested in visiting Quseir Amra. Or Wadi Rum. And nobody is willing to go out on a limb to start a round-Jordan bus service anyway, in the hope that vivid marketing and a bit of PR will create a demand. So Amra (and others) remain desperately under-visited, Jordanian tourism remains stuck in a rut of seven-day package tours visiting all the same places, and innovation of Jordan’s national tourism product remains largely elusive. Someone, somewhere has to bite the bullet.

Looks like they’re trying in post-revolutionary South Sinai.