Image: Visitors tents at the Dana reserve in southern Jordan
Nader Daoud  /  AP
Visitor's tents are set up at the Dana reserve in southern Jordan, home of the ancient red-rock city of Petra. Jordan is promoting places like the wooded highlands and rocky slopes of the Dana Reserve in an attempt to capture a stake in the growing outdoor adventure and eco-tourism market.
updated 12/10/2008 1:57:25 PM ET 2008-12-10T18:57:25

A trek uphill from Jordan's scorching Dead Sea shore through the towering sandstone walls of the Mujib gorge leaves you with a pulse-racing way to get back down — strap into a harness and rappel down a waterfall into a sparkling river.

Jordan, home of the ancient red-rock city of Petra, is reaching beyond its considerable historical and Biblical tourist attractions to try to capture a stake in the growing outdoor adventure and eco-tourism market.

Besides the Mujib gorge — which has the distinction of being the lowest elevation nature reserve in the world — Jordan is marketing places like the wooded highlands and rocky slopes of the Dana Reserve in the country's south. Visitors there take in views of massive domelike clusters of red-beige rock and — with luck — might catch a glimpse of the shy mountain ibex before settling in for the night at a camp site, rustic guesthouse or the reserve's candlelit eco-lodge.

The desert kingdom's effort to lure eco-tourists — 66,000 came last year among a total of 3.4 million tourists — seeks to reap the benefits of four decades of pioneering wildlife and nature conservation.

Environmentalists supported by then-ruler King Hussein founded The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature in 1966 at a time when war with Israel, not ecological conservation, dominated most Arab agendas.

"The area was in turmoil," said the society's director, Yehya Khaled. "The following year we had a war between the Arabs and Israel."

Since then, the non-governmental organization has led environmental education programs, set a national environmental strategy and established and maintained eight nature reserves so far.

Other countries in the Middle East are following Jordan's lead.

In the United Arab Emirates, for example, Dubai's dune-rippled Desert Conservation Reserve was recognized in November as a protected area by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, thanks in part to its sustainable tourism program and its re-introduction of Arabian oryx and gazelles.

Among the region's more far-flung places, Yemen's island of Socotra is also drawing determined eco-tourists and has been compared to the Galapagos because of its hundreds of species of plants and animals that are found nowhere else on earth.

Jordan, for its part, has even dispatched its cause-crusading Queen Rania, known for her activism on issues like poverty and education, to boost eco-tourism numbers. She promoted the country's natural heritage recently at a Conde Nast travel forum in New York.

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"If you want adventure, you can abseil (rope) down waterfalls, paraglide off sandstone crags, navigate Red Sea reefs, then cook supper deep in the desert sands of Wadi Rum," she told an audience of hundreds of travel industry leaders.

Such exhilaration can be had along one of the trails through the Mujib gorge. From the edge of the Dead Sea, it winds up through hills and descends to the Mujib river via a rope rappel down a 65-foot waterfall. Along the way, you can stop and cool off in natural pools.

The country's reserves are also great places to spot wildlife. Jordan's conservation efforts included the 1978 reintroduction of the once nearly extinct Arabian oryx, an elegant white antelope native to the Arabian Peninsula.

The Dana Reserve is home to the Syrian wolf and other endangered animals, as well as 700 plant species, including Jordan's rare national flower, the black iris, and 215 kinds of birds. You might even cross paths with a horned ibex.

In establishing the reserve in the 1990s, Jordan also resurrected the fortunes of a dying Bedouin village there, providing residents with jobs helping run the reserve.

With Dana and the other reserves, The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature also helps market and sell hand-crafted silver jewelry, organic jams and olive oil produced by the local communities through its Wild Jordan division.

Officials at Dana also took into account the area's broader environmental problems, including by setting up a sustainable grazing program for Bedouin goat herders.

"We're ahead of the entire Mideast region. We've introduced integrating biodiversity conservation with sustainable community and socio-economic development," conservation society director Khaled said.

Slideshow: Celebrating world heritage The conservation society, which is looking to establish nine more reserves, hopes eco-tourism will serve as the main source of income for the work.

Dana is the country's largest reserve, covering some 190 square miles.

It is a place of startling variety.

Lush mountains as high as 4,900 feet descend to open woodlands of juniper and oak. And farther down sits scrubland and sandy desert below sea level.

"Your walk may start in snow and after four hours you'll only need a T-shirt. You're still in Dana, but it feels like a different country," said local guide Tayseer al-Qtashat.

The reserve has 11 walks ranging from a gentle one-hour jaunt to a more invigorating 10-hour trek that demands some climbing and swimming.

Dana and three other natural sites in Jordan — the Azraq Wetlands, Mujib and Wadi Rum — are soon to be added to UNESCO's World Heritage List, which already includes other Jordanian favorites such as Petra, Qasayr Amra and Umm Rasas.

American tourist Daniel Dyer, from New Jersey, has visited several of Jordan's nature reserves and said he plans to keep coming back, especially to Dana.

"There is drama here. Such natural beauty is exceptional," Dyer said. "I'd have to agree with Queen Noor who called the views here nothing less than '10-star.'"

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