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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 November 2018

Jordan's adventure tourism companies under scrutiny after flood tragedy

Media and political anger turns away from school for going ahead with trip that killed 21 people

A general view of the location where rain storms unleashed flash floods, near the Dead Sea, Jordan October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
A general view of the location where rain storms unleashed flash floods, near the Dead Sea, Jordan October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Jordan's adventure tourism has come under scrutiny after the deaths of 21 people in flash floods last week, many of them school children on a field trip.

After initial anger at the Victoria College School for going ahead with the excursion despite storm forecasts, the focus of media and politicians has now turned to the company that organised the trip and other operators catering to Jordan's increasingly popular adventure tourism sector.

Both the school and the tour company, Creativity Zone-Jordan Echo, have been shut after the tragedy last Thursday, when flash floods caused by heavy rains swept through the Wadi Zarqa Maeen near the Dead Sea.

According to official sources, the upscale school in West Amman will remain closed until the government decides next week whether to shut it permanently — affecting hundreds of pupils — or allow it to reopen after replacing its administration. School officials sent the children south-west to the Dead Sea area despite informing the education ministry that the trip was to Azraq in the Eastern desert, and placed 37 children and seven chaperones on the bus when the permit allowed for only 30.

Creativity Zone-Jordan Echo, meanwhile, has been referred to the prosecutor general, also for failing to comply with regulations, Tourism Minister Lina Annab told MPs in a meeting on Sunday, the local daily Ad Dustour reported.

It is not yet clear whether the company was specifically licensed for adventure tours, and exactly what regulations are in place to govern the sector in Jordan.

Adventure and ecotourism is a niche but growing sector of Jordan's tourism industry, which has only recently rebounded from a seven-year downturn sparked by the Arab Uprising and the war in neighbouring Syria. Tourism generated revenue of US$4.6 billion (Dh16.9bn) in 2017 and is expected to surpass that this year, generating $3.6bn in the first eight months alone.

Several local tour companies and groups have sprung up to offer visitors and citizens activities such as rock climbing and hikes through the kingdom’s scenic wadis, gorges and rolling hills. The international award-winning Jordan Trail — a 40-day, 600-kilometre trek from the north to south, passing through canyons, mountain ranges and local communities along the way — has been praised by hikers from all over the world.

The annual spring hike, organised by a non-profit with support from the tourism ministry, attracts thousands of people. It is closely monitored by experienced tour guides and there have been no incidents since it was launched last year.

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But after the tragedy last week, questions are being raised about whether enough precautions are in place to safeguard people who go exploring outside of organised tours or without a licensed guide.

“What we want to know is this: what are the standards for adventure tourism in Jordan, what are the safety regulations in place, and what are the requirements and licensing process for tour guides and companies?” said Dima Tahboub, an MP for Amman who has officially requested the tourism ministry to present its detailed plans and regulations for the sector.

“It seems that some groups are simply opening Facebook pages and organising trips without training and licensing, which is very concerning,” Ms Tahboub told The National.

“And if there were no clear regulations we have to ask: why were there no preventive measures form the beginning?”

According to the Jordan Tour Guides Association, the problem lies with tour companies using unlicensed guides who are not trained in adventure tourism and fail to take necessary precautions.

“All forms of tourism in Jordan are safe if guides and tour companies follow the proper rules and regulations,” said Hasan Al Ababneh, the association president.

Mr Al Ababneh pointed out that 300 tour groups were visiting sites across the kingdom when heavy rains hit the country last Thursday, but there were no other incidents. Other guides in the Dead Sea area cancelled their tours because of the weather, a basic precaution, he said.

The guides for the fatal school outing also failed to alert the tourist police, the ministry and local residents that they would in the area and venturing into the wadi — which would have accelerated rescue efforts and perhaps even stopped them from reaching the wadi, Mr Al Ababneh.

In any case, the government rule is that no one under the age of 18 is allowed to canyon or rock climb; the pupils on the school trip were under the age of 14.

According to the tour guides association, members specialised in adventure tourism receive regular training organised by the ministry of tourism and international experts. Many train in canyoning, rock climbing, diving and other activities not only in the kingdom but also in Canada and South Africa.

Mr Al Ababneh said there was also a need for proper monitoring of wadis and canyons.

Jordan has more than 25 picturesque canyons and wadis popular with sightseers and for hiking, swimming and picnics, yet only a handful are within nature reserves and monitored by authorities.

“There are many beautiful valleys and canyons in Jordan and many people go to them without a programme or even a guide, and that is where the risk begins,” Mr Ababneh said. “Everyone who plays in a role in tourism has to increase efforts to monitor these areas.”

Reliance on guides who are not from the area and familiar with the geography and weather patterns is also dangerous, said Abu Ali, a tour guide from southern Jordan who preferred not to use his full name as he is unlicensed.

“Anyone from the local community would have told you that a storm was coming and the [Zarqa Maeen] wadi was not safe,” he said,

“When people from the local community who spent their lives here are involved, we can take better measures to ensure everyone returns home safe and happy.”