x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Travelling with a conscience in the Middle East

A growing number of luxury tour operators are promoting responsible tourism in the region.

The suite's private swimming pool at Al Maha Resort. Lee Hoagland / The National
The suite's private swimming pool at Al Maha Resort. Lee Hoagland / The National

What is responsible tourism? With so many travel companies jumping on the ecotourism bandwagon, any holiday or hotel resort labelled "green", "eco-friendly" or "sustainable" now attracts a good deal of suspicion. The term "responsible tourism" attempts to define tourism that, at the very least, ensures that holidays do not put environments, species and indigenous people at risk. At best it has a positive impact, bringing revenue, skills and even publicity to help conserve the environment and support the livelihoods of local people.

Environmentally responsible tourism is a particular challenge in the Middle East, where desert conditions and the desire for large-scale hotels mean sandals and grass huts are definitely out. But responsible tourism need not be the antithesis of comfort. As our list shows, a growing number of luxury tour operators are actively engaged in local projects and have invested in new technology to preserve ­resources.

With a three-to-one staff-to-guest ratio, lodge-style suites with temperature-controlled swimming pools and wooden decking, horse riding, facials and hot stone therapy - all in the middle of a 225-square-kilometre desert conservation reserve - Al Maha offers luxury with a conscience. Since opening in 1999, the resort has overseen the reintroduction of a wide range of indigenous species, many of them endangered. Knowledgeable field guides are now showing visitors the rheem gazelle, the scimitar-horned oryx, the Arabian oryx and the rare Arabian fox. Guests can relax in the Timeless Spa - a collection of massage, hydrotherapy, steam rooms jacuzzis and plunge pools - with the knowledge that all the water from the resort is reused for irrigation purposes.

Mountain Extreme, an adventure company based in Ras Al Khaimah, offers outdoor training courses and hikes in the Hajar mountain range. The company also runs litter-picking day trips and supports the local branch of the WWF, which works to protect local species. Sign up for a trip to Majlis al Jinn, the world's second largest cave chamber in the Jebel Bani Jaber mountains of Oman. Cost: Dh5,450, including one-night stay in Muscat.

In addition to following The Banyan Tree's environmental policies, which include the use of eco-friendly shower gels and shampoos in refillable containers, the hotel matches guests' contributions to its Green Imperative Fund, which funds local environmental initiatives. Staying here gives you the freedom to enjoy the Middle East's largest spa and the opulent fusion of Arabian and Asian design. All rooms are in separate one or two-bedroom villas with private swimming pool and jacuzzi. Banyan Tree Al Areen: www.banyantree.com, 00973 17 84 5000. Cost: Dh3,780 per night for two adults, including breakfast and two massages.

The average size of a group tour to Oman with Undiscovered Destinations is just four people, and the low-impact approach extends to the company policies of working with small, locally owned tour operators and staff. Accommodation is often remote and self-sufficient, using ­local resources for food, labour and construction materials. Its nine-day Unknown Land tour takes in the Hajar mountains, Nizwa, the ­Wahiba Sands Desert and Muscat. Oman Undiscovered: www.oman-undiscovered.com, 0044 191 296 2674. Prices start at Dh12,900, including accommodation, land transport, food, the services of a guide and ­national park entrance fees.

The Dana Nature Reserve in Jordan includes a large system of wadis and mountains conserved by the Amman-based Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. The Dana Village area, overlooking the scenic Wadi Dana, has been occupied since 4000BC. Travellers can spend a day hiking the various trails before spending the night at the Rummana Campsite, Dana Guest House or Feynan eco-lodge, a traditionally designed hotel which is lit only through solar power and candles. For booking, contact Wild Jordan: 00962 6 461 6523, www.rscn.org.jo. Cost: Dh125 per person per night, including breakfast.

The remote Yemeni island of ­Socotra has been biologically isolated for millions of years. As a result, it has Arabia's greatest animal and plant diversity. High & Wild, a British tour operator, limits its impact on the environment by taking only small groups and ensuring that local communities benefit from its trips by contributing to training programmes for local people. The adventure includes several long treks, birdwatching, snorkelling and camping. High & Wild: www.highandwild.co.uk, 0044 1749 671 777. Cost: Dh11,200 per person for an 18-day trip. It includes accommodation, food, entry fees, the services of an English-speaking guide and ground transport.

Frontier, a non-profit conservation and development organisation, aims to safeguard the biodiversity of ecosystems and build sustainable livelihoods for "marginalised communities in the world's poorest countries". It offers two weeks of trekking in the Atlas Mountains, followed by a two-week teaching assignment in a Berber village. Frontier: www.frontier.ac.uk, 0044 207 613 2422. Cost: Dh7,000 per head, including ground transportation, accommodation and meals.

Hands Up Holidays runs volunteering holidays all over the world. Its 14-day Desert and Dunes trip combines a tour of Tripoli, Leptis Magna, Sabratha and Nalut. The highlight, though, is a trip to the old town of Ghadames, where you will spend four days restoring this Unesco World Heritage Site. The trip then continues with a visit to the Ubari Sand Sea and two days camping in the Akakus mountains in the Sahara. Hands Up Holidays: www.handsupholidays.com, 0044 207 193 1062 Cost: Dh9,800, including accommodation, ground transport, the services of a guide and all meals.

See Egypt and do a lot of good on this 10-day trip. On arrival in Cairo, visit a children's home and hand over much-needed provisions, including nappies, clothes and food. After an overnight train journey to Aswan, board a Nile felucca. Don protective gloves and fill large waste sacks with rubbish from your various stopping points. On the go tours: www.onthegotours.com, 0044 207 371 1113. Cost: Dh2,100 per head (half the proceeds go to children's initiatives).

The Olive Cooperative offers educational tours to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Each tour provides an opportunity to see the beauty of an area frequently seen only as a war zone. It also encourages visitors to meet Israeli and Palestinian volunteer organisations, working to contribute to peace in the region. Visit www.olivecoop.com or call 0044 161 273 1970 for more information. Cost: Dh3,500 per person for eight nights, including accommodation and ground transport.