Q & A with Daniel Robards, Co-Founder, Engaging Cultures, Amman, Jordan
Engaging Cultures was honored by National Geographic Traveler in its 2014 50 Tours of a Lifetime issue. Trips to Tunisia are also available.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO LAUNCH THIS COMPANY?
All three founders have personally experienced travel as a way to connect, inspire, and be a global force for good. We wanted to create a similar experience for travelers who wish to visit Jordan. So we developed a company with the idea of fostering interactions and cultural exchanges with real local people. In this way our guests are enriched by new perspectives and deeper understandings in addition to seeing some of the most amazing sites!
ANY CHANGES SINCE LAUNCH?
After the first year or so, we realized we did not want to hit the mass market. We decided if we were to add value to guest experiences we needed to not focus on those just wanting an average, check off a country from my bucket list type of tour. During this time, we coined the phrase, Forget the Tourist Fluff. Therefore, we had to make changes in our marketing.
WHAT SURPRISES TRAVELERS THE MOST ABOUT JORDAN?
After a tour, guests always tell us that the country exceeded their expectations. They are surprised and impressed by the hospitality, safety, and sheer kindness of the Jordanian people. I know it sounds biased, but all you have to do is talk to someone who has traveled to Jordan and they will tell you about its unique landscapes, archaeology, and wonderful people.
Besides following tour guide specifications and laws for our licensed guides, we have other credentials that make our guides exceptional. It is important to us that our guides and interpreters (whether being licensed or local farmers) know and share our Core Values. Our guides have an insightful feel for local knowledge and the ability to communicate well in English without overly managing impressions. They are proud of their country, but honest as well in their communication and explanation of local sites and culture. It is important to us that our guides are thoughtful, safe, and respectful to the local host community as well as to our guests.
TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR HOME-STAY OPTION.
Through home-stays guests receive an authentic cultural experience by spending enough time with their host to truly bond. One of our home-stay guests recently said I wish we could just cancel Petra and stay here for 3 more days. When we hear this, we are reminded that the Jordanian people are the greatest asset to local tourism. Home-stays directly benefit the host rural community of farmers or Bedouins, so it is a bonus for both hosts and guests.
Jordan is very vegetarian friendly -- in fact Jordan recently was listed in a CNN report as being one of the World's 11 Best Vegetarian Destinations! Our local hosts can make adjustments without too much trouble. For other special diet needs (diabetic, nut allergy or gluten-free), we work on a case-by-case basis. We will communicate those needs with restaurants and local hosts on behalf of the guest upon reasonable advance notice.
WHAT SHOULD ONE PACK FOR A TRIP TO JORDAN?
While Jordan is a progressive Muslim country, it is still conservative at heart. For women, the general rule of thumb is the less skin showing, the less attention you will draw to yourself (it really is for your benefit). Tightness of clothing is not as much of a faux pas as showing skin in this culture. For everyone, it is a great idea to pack layers. During the fall and winter seasons it can go from hot to cold in an instant (sun-to-shade, evenings). Bring one good pair of walking shoes if not two! The streets of Jordan are dustier and slightly dirtier than you are probably used to. The desert areas are rocky, and many prefer closed-toe shoes to avoid stubbing toes. Some prefer sandals during the spring and summer months, just make sure the sandals are well-constructed and durable. Bring your camera, hat for the sun, sunscreen and swimsuit for floating in the magical waters of the Dead Sea!
DO YOU OFFER CUSTOMIZED TOURS? GIVE AN EXAMPLE.
Yes, almost everything we do is a custom offer. One example, we recently hosted a British couple who live on an olive farm in South Africa, and they just purchased a new olive press. They were curious to see a Jordanian olive farm and how their olive press works. We arranged for a home-stay in north Jordan and a private tour of harvesting olives with local farmers. A local olive press owner walked them through the olive oil making process. After three days there, they set off for Petra and the Dead Sea! As you can tell, our tours are not your standard re-packaged itinerary.
HOW IS ECOTOURISM EVOLVING IN THE KINGDOM?
Our company follows The International Ecotourism Society. They define ecotourism as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education. We narrow that down to our own daily mantra: Do not mess it up, make it better. We are committed to preserving the cultural and natural resources of host communities and empowering people with life-improving opportunities.
As for the country in general, we are seeing an increase in local awareness and a few innovations. A good example is the award-winning Feynan Eco Lodge located in the Dana Biosphere Reserve. This was built in 2005 in partnership with The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. The lodge generates all its own electricity through solar panels and gives employment to nearby residents. We hope to see more developments like this.
A QUICK SUMMARY?
Jordan will leave a mark on your soul. Engaging Cultures is here to facilitate that transformative experience for you. We have American travel specialists living in Jordan as well as in Tunisia (who speak Arabic and know the local culture). Because we live in Jordan, we are able to develop relationships with the best guides, drivers, and home-stay hosts. Our guests frequently say the best part was the people!!! We are always thrilled when we hear this.
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