When the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the ancient city of Petra a World Heritage Site in 1985, the Jordanian government relocated over 300 families from Petra’s caves to the neighbouring village of Umm Sayhoun.
Now, Petra is one of Jordan’s most famed tourist attractions, and thousands of visitors pay a hefty entrance fee to look at the ancient city and get a taste of traditional Bedouin life. The same is true for Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert, granted a similar UNESCO designation in 2011.
Where there once was only rock, desert and sparse pockets of Bedouin camps, there are now tour groups from every continent and a growing population of once-nomadic Bedouin whose livelihoods depend on tourism.
“We are paying the consequences of that choice until now,” said Giorgia Cesaro, project manager in UNESCO’s culture sector in Amman. “I can see a cultural threat to their traditions related to high contact with tourists and it somehow contaminating their traditions.”
Five years ago, UNESCO added the Bedouin of Petra and Wadi Rum to a running list of intangible heritages – folklore and traditions not found anywhere else in the world – that are in need of urgent safekeeping. Beyond potential cultural threats, there is a sense that the commodification of Bedouin culture for tourist purposes has devalued education among the communities that work at the sites.
“Bedouins don’t see the point of staying in school for long; it doesn’t seem relevant for them,” said John Shoup, an anthropology professor at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco. “Young men are looking at people who have degrees, who are not making much more than their uneducated parents working in tourism.”
But tourism has slowed, and a shrinking economy has brought into focus a struggling local education system and literacy rates far behind the rest of Jordan. “In 2009 and 2010 things were great,” said Ibrahim Zalabi, a Bedouin who runs a camp for tourists in Wadi Rum. “After [uprisings in] Tunisia, Libya and Egypt… that’s when it all went downhill.”