Preserving local treasures sustainably and responsibly to generate business and conserve our cultural heritage.
HRH Princess Dana Firas believes that the conservation of Jordan’s cultural heritage contributes greatly to protecting Jordan’s identity and sustaining its development, alongside preserving the countless treasures that span the Kingdom. Her Royal Highness is not only a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, she is also a Fulbright Scholar, and the President of the Board of Directors of the Petra National Trust. She discusses her passion for cultural heritage, the Petra National Trust’s reach to students, Jordan’s sustainable development goals, and her view of challenges as learning opportunities.
Tourism in the Kingdom now takes multiple forms, how do you see the diversity of tourism developing further in the Kingdom?
HRH: Jordan has huge potential for tourism – it is perhaps the most resilient of all of our industries – so despite an economic slowdown and difficulties in the whole region, we’ve seen, this year especially, that tourism has continued to grow and to create jobs.
Tourism comes in many forms for Jordan, but our natural advantages are our natural and cultural sites. In many ways, I think this is where we need to be focusing. However, we have destinations for health tourism, religious tourism, and for any other form of tourism. I do believe, though, that one must focus on one’s competitive advantage in this industry, and we’ve an exceptional variety of natural and cultural sites that will serve as the basis of a solid, sustainable and responsible tourism strategy.
I think the world is moving increasingly towards tourism that leaves little impact behind. People also look for destinations that are unique and they want their tourism experience to be special and to be unique, and this what we can provide; this is a natural aspect of tourism in Jordan. We have to make sure that we are marketing our incredible variety of tangible and intangible cultural heritage products, and that we are encouraging tourists to experience both.
We really must put at the forefront of our tourism strategy the kind of tourism that meets the needs of the modern tourist. They don’t want to leave any environmental impact, they don’t want indistinguishable tourism, staying only in big hotels that could be in New York, Petra, Cairo, or anywhere else in the world.
You have always been a strong advocate for the preservation of cultural heritage. Why do you do what you do?
HRH: When I started out in cultural heritage, for many years I did not consider myself an ally to the tourism industry; I felt very strongly that tourism had a destructive impact on our cultural heritage and cultural resources. For many years, the relationship between the two was challenging for me. It took me a lot of learning and of experience and trying to evolve my own thinking to come to the balance of what tourism can offer and my own passionate commitment to culture and heritage preservation.
The main challenges in the world today are all global, and unless we look at them as a global community we will never be able to make any difference, or find solutions to these problems. Tourism and cultural heritage are no exception.
The global industry has moved much more towards preservation and conservation. I have found that, in my experience, to really have commitment to cultural heritage preservation at the decision making level and local community level, there has to be a discernable benefit. There is definitely an opportunity to make money, create jobs, to improve livelihoods through cultural heritage preservation, and tourism is a big part of that – 40% of global tourism is culture focused. These are numbers in the trillion, and it is a growing sector. Tourists are demanding cultural experiences.
The cultural industry is a $1.3 trillion industry; there is a lot of potential to enter this sector and ensure that people get the benefit from that.
For me personally, cultural heritage is not a luxury. It is the basic building block for sustainable development, and this is what has brought me into it. When we look at our cultural heritage, we are talking about thousands of years of civilizations, people, traditions and religions that made Jordan their home, or have passed through, leaving a little bit of themselves. For us today, as modern Jordanians, we are the modern inheritors of this incredible legacy that is an integral part of our identity. Who we are is a result of thousands of years of civilizations.
This is not a small inheritance, this is a huge inheritance, and for us a huge responsibility.
It enables us to be connected in so many ways to the rest of the world; it is a thread of human history that emphasizes our common values as people – our common humanity, and is a big part of our identity. What cultural heritage offers you is the values we need today to be positive, to be engaged and to be productive members of our community. It is about respecting diversity, appreciating what difference can bring to a community, creative thinking and solving problems in a way that brings out the most positive impact.
Also, it is about gender equality, a sense of responsibility – not only to yourself but also to your community, country and the world.
In that long journey, what were some of the unexpected hurdles you encountered? What were some of the unexpected benefits and achievements?
That’s a very interesting question. I don’t like thinking of hurdles as hurdles; I like to think of them as learning experiences, as opportunities for us to think differently and to try to be creative in the way we solve things. I am incredibly stubborn about what I do, so I will continue to persevere and try to get my message across regardless. On the contrary, hurdles are wonderful opportunities to try and do things differently. I often run across the issue of cultural heritage not being something that people consider important, and I think this is one issue we continually face, and I constantly repeat the message and try to reach people so they can understand its importance.
Sometimes, when its decision makers you are dealing with, it becomes extra challenging because they control what can happen. Policies, projects, programs are sometimes implemented and supported that can have an irreversible impact on our cultural heritage.
For example, the Old Forum Hotel in Petra which was built probably prior to 1985, who’s original design was by Jordanian architect Jafar Tukan. It is the only building of its kind in Petra, and yet, over the last few years we have seen several architectural plans to completely change the building to something more modern and much less unique to the region. Sometimes you think, how can anyone take a decision to destroy a building of such importance, instead of taking a step back and doing what they can to revitalize it, bring it back to use, use it to provide jobs for income creation while protecting and preserving the history and evolution of the site.
This lack of understanding of why these places are so important, that is perhaps the greatest challenge that we face. Very little is unexpected when it comes to unexpected achievements, it takes years of effort.
How do you feel about the 17 SDGs adopted by the UN? Especially that cultural heritage preservation is not one of these goals.
HRH: This is something I feel very strongly about. I think to have the 17 Sustainable Development Goals is very important and engages the whole world community over shared goals. I would have liked to see cultural heritage preservation featured much more prominently in the 17 SGDs. It feeds into many goals, but is mentioned explicitly under goal four and eleven.
The reason why I feel it is critical is because cultural heritage preservation is linked so closely with mindsets and values, and with this idea of creating a global community that believes in working together and sharing certain values that are important to the success of these goals. Cultural heritage is the fountain of these values. It is where we get these values. I think it would have been very important to include it much more explicitly in the goals.
However, having said that, the thing we see in the goals is that they are specific and there are measurable benchmarks associated with the goals and deadlines. This means that countries have to report back at certain times about the progress they have made regarding each and every goal. I think it would have been useful for the explicit mention of cultural heritage preservation because it would have mobilized a more concerted effort and it would have been prioritized on national levels across the world. I think this was an opportunity that was missed, but we are still working towards it.
We highlight cultural preservation when we can, and we are always making sure that it is considered a development priority in Jordan and globally.
What are the biggest challenges for sustainable tourism today?
HRH: I think the biggest challenge is finding the balance. How do you develop tourism while at the same time maintaining a minimal impact on your environment and your cultural heritage resources? There is no magic formula. No one has come up with an ideal scenario, and it is not only a challenge for Jordan, but a global challenge. It’s very site-specific as well, so there is not one formula you can adopt, although there are many experiences that we can learn from. The challenge is to get a very serious commitment to sustainability and beyond. And, if you have that commitment, a lot follows; you have the right rules, the right regulations and approach. The government framework is very important in supporting a principle that needs to become a national commitment.
We need to understand this balance and to control how many people enter our sites, where the hotels are, what they look like and how much people consume. All of these are very important requirements for sustainable tourism; and, if you do not have a commitment at the highest level to sustainability, all these things do not become a priority. We work very hard to enlist sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, but what does that mean?
Enlisting these sites means that we have to abide by laws, conventions and regulations that determine how we manage these sites; and that makes us accountable to a global community in that regard.
This is a huge responsibility, and it really needs to become a government priority. For example, every heritage site has to have a buffer zone around it to protect the site. The buffer zone has to be an area controlled in terms of hotels, developments, buildings, their numbers, what they look like and what their impact is. Unfortunately, we often see buildings mushrooming around many heritage sites, without any consideration of the impact to the integrity of the site, because they are so well-visited and so there is a demand for services.
I think it has to become a national priority to understand what that means on the ground, in terms of management and governance, and is the only way we can achieve true sustainability.
What are the main achievements of the Petra National Trust in tourism?
HRH: Well, PNT is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The idea came about in 1987 after Petra was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. PNT was finally registered in 1989. The person who came up with the concept of having a civil society organization working hand-in-hand with the government to ensure that the site is managed properly, was Mrs. Suha Shoman. She approached my father-in-law, HRH Prince Ra’ad Bin Zeid, and they created a board of culturally aware Jordanian activists who put it together in 1985, with the support of their Majesties King Hussein and Queen Noor.
PNT has always been an advocacy organization from day one; our role has always been to coordinate and work with the government and local authorities on management practices.
One of the very important ones was the consolidation of the Siq in Petra, which started in 1994 and took six years to complete. The floor of the Siq was brought down 3-4 meters in some places and tons of rubble was taken out. The idea was to try to bring back the hydrological system which the Nabateans had built and was designed to protect the site from flash floods.
In 2010, we decided that we would like to reach a wider audience and try to change the way people understand the importance of cultural heritage. We launched an education and awareness program for public school children from ages 7 to 18. We did it slowly and developed our own curricula with the help of local and international experts, and the curricula has received numerous international awards. The program was launched in the six villages around Petra and is available now in every governorate in Jordan. We are very conscious to instill these principles within our students, over many sessions, and our students commit to us for years.
Our focus has always been on the values – what are the values we inherit from our cultural heritage? Why is our cultural heritage important? What is the historical value? We support this whole idea of being creative, industrious, and this appreciation for beauty and why it’s important to our soul and spirit. We work on economic values and why it is important to always keep in mind cultural heritage while looking to your future and job opportunities. We work very closely with our students over years and years to make cultural heritage part of their DNA, a part of who they are and how they relate to their communities and their future.
Our programs are conducted in partnership with the Ministry of Education and the directorates of education in the different governorates. We have also worked with private schools, which has been very successful. We had to build an entire curriculum to fulfil different requirements and also to ensure it was always engaging for the students. Our program has also been adjusted to take into account teachers and students with disabilities.
Our latest development is working in Mafraq with Jordanian and Syrian students. We are trying to integrate those students to make sure there is a sense of social cohesion and respect, especially for the displaced populations, in order that they maintain their sense of pride in their own identity and cultural heritage. We are trying to provide an experience that is stimulating and fun for displaced populations as well.
Does tourism in the Kingdom provide opportunity to Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) that do not need big capital?
HRH: The backbone of most economies in the world is small and medium enterprises, and tourism is an excellent industry to support SMEs. I think that is actually the better direction to go in, rather than reaching out to the big conglomerates and multinationals to come in, but to really support the development of local SMEs to enter the market and be key drivers of the tourism industry in Jordan. It is also a sector that has very low entry barriers, for women and for youth. I think there is great potential to manage in such a way, to enable opportunities for SME industries – it is also a sector that is open to informal economies, and you see the world moving in that direction. There are many host-stays, with home cooking, and these are open to people; but they just need to be regulated properly with the right health and safety standards put in place. They do provide a lot of opportunities.
Tourists today are looking for products that are unique and distinguished. They don’t want to stay in a hotel that exists anywhere in the world; they want to stay in someone’s home and in small boutique hotels that are very genuine and are owned and run by locals. I think there is a huge opportunity to build this industry.
What potential is there for business capital to invest in tourism?
HRH: There is incredible potential, I said it before, and I will say it again. I think we have an incredible potential to ensure that tourism development moves in a direction that is sustainable and responsible and this is where the investment needs to go. It needs to go into creating tourism experiences that are unique; small boutique-style investments in hotels – the best hotels in the world are very small and have waiting lists to stay in them for years at a time. I think this is where the money needs to go.
We need to make sure that we develop systems for visitor management – we take the investment outside the regular area where traditionally we have had investment. This is a very important strategic direction we have to go with. Jordan has five World Heritage Sites, but it has 15 sites on the tentative list in the hopes that we can have them listed.
We actually do have the potential to come in early and invest very responsibly and carefully in those other areas to create attractive destinations for visitors, different from the usual destination that has been promoted in the past. There is a treasure there that needs to be invested in.
What are the most remarkable archeological sites in the Kingdom? Do these sites represent a value at levels with international antiquities?
HRH: I think they are all incredibly remarkable, I am biased, I have been working in Petra for so long and I have to always go back and say Petra truly is an exceptional international destination by any standard. It is my favorite site, world-wide. We have Umm Al Jamal in the north – a beautiful Basalt city. It has a remarkable history that stands from the Nabateans all the way to the Abbasids. I am very partial to Makawir myself, because my husband and I decided to get married in Makawir! I have an emotional attachment to it.
Um Al Rasas is beautiful, the mosaics in those churches in Um Al Rasas are absolutely exceptional – it is an UNESCO site. Qasr Amra is out of this world. It is Umayyad and is listed. It is an iconic destination, with so many beautiful frescos and paintings on the walls. We have these incredible sites that need to be visited and appreciated by so many.
We are now working on listing Al-Salt city as a World Heritage Site and I think we sometimes overlook the importance of city tourism. I think Al-Salt city has incredible potential. It is a beautiful city, with a huge history. Urban destinations are very important for us.
There is no difference at the highest level between what we have here and anywhere else in the world. The treasure we have here is truly exceptional. And, the number of sites and their importance, their value and diversity in this geographical area is, perhaps, the best in the world.
I don’t think people understand how exceptional and unbelievably fortunate we are to have this level of cultural richness in Jordan. It is a great privilege but also a huge responsibility. This is what we need to be investing in; promoting and protecting. We must be aware that this is where the value lies.
What kind of effort should citizens be making to conserve the historical sites?
HRH: Conservation and preservation will never work if you don’t have the full commitment of the Jordanian people – local communities at the decision-making level. The number one thing people can do right now is stop throwing garbage in the streets, in public areas, parks and archeological sites. If we can stop doing that, that would be a huge first step.
We need to be aware of how important our cultural heritage sites are and really use our voice as people, as citizens, to influence policy. We have to make sure that if a big investor comes in and wants to establish a project in an area that is sensitive, that could cause irreversible damage, that we stand up and say no. Invest, but invest slightly further out where you can’t damage these beautiful sites. It is our responsibility to determine how we develop these sites and how to strategically move forward on cultural heritage development; and we can all use our voices to make sure it is done responsibly and carefully.
By Yousef G. Baarah