Search the #luxurycamp tag on Instagram and inevitably, you’ll come across a stunning scene: intergalactic-looking tents popping against the rugged landscape of a deeply red planet. These settlements with The Martian movie vibes are luxury camps set inside the desert of Wadi Rum, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the south of Jordan. Staying at one of these camps has become a bucket list item for many visitors to this small Middle Eastern country, where travel has grown considerably in the past decade.
This year, the country, which is smaller than the state of Ohio, has already attracted 2.5 million visitors, a number on track to get close to its prepandemic levels. (According to Jordan’s ministry of tourism, over 5 million people visited Jordan in 2019.) Much of that traffic goes to Wadi Rum, an ancient seafloor turned desert with granite mountains rising from the red earth.
To limit overtourism and preserve the desert, the Jordanian government gave one area inside Wadi Rum protected status in the 1990s, but it also caused the rest of the desert to become more crowded as the interest in the site continued to grow. Driven in part by the popularity of luxury glamping camps on Instagram, bubble tents built by outside investors are everywhere (at one count, they represent a quarter of all accommodations in Wadi Rum, and that number is growing). But there is another lodging option that supports the local community—and the desert itself: a traditional Bedouin camp. Here’s why you should try one of these.
Support the local community
According to archaeological finds of inscriptions in the area, the desert of Wadi Rum has been inhabited by humans for at least the last 12,000 years. The Bedouin tribes that live in this desert today are descendants of the nomadic herders who for centuries roamed between the Arabian peninsula and the Levant (today’s Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan). No longer nomadic and settled in two main villages, Diceh and Wadi Rum, many Bedouin families derive their livelihoods from tourism because livestock herding, another source of income, has been declining in recent years due to climate-related degradation of pastures and waning interest from younger generations.
A traditional family-run camp is an extension of the Bedouin lifestyle, one where humans are never far removed from their natural environment. Bedouin children often help their parents with herding, collecting dry wood for fires, and setting up tents inside the desert. As they grow, Bedouins learn about the various desert plants and their uses: For example, they know that white saxaul shrub makes great firewood while another one, called ajram, is used for washing up (rubbed together, it foams much like soap does).
These camps consist of several traditional-style black and white tents for guests, a main communal area with a fire, and a kitchen area where meals are prepared. Operations are run by relatives and friends who have grown up in the desert and understand its way of life, which means that money spent here goes directly to support the families back in the village.
Help preserve the desert
While a traditional portable Bedouin tent essentially has no hard walls, allowing air to move freely, a modified tent used to host guests at Bedouin camps features a square- or rectangular-shaped iron structure, insulated by cloth material for privacy and covered by the black and white goat hair fabric on the outside. Whereas plastic-made bubble tents feature amenities like air-conditioning, Bedouin tents tend to skip ACs in favor of a more realistic desert experience. (Some Bedouin camps do offer ACs, caving in to the pressures of competing with bubble camps and requests for ACs from tourists.) There are windows that let the desert breeze in during hotter summer days and multiple blankets protect from the cold instead of heaters.
Both bubble camps and Bedouin camps use solar energy, an abundant source in the desert, but bubble camps have to rely on additional power to support air-conditioning: fuel generators. This means that the choice to use air-conditioning brings an increase in noise and smoke pollution.
Many Bedouin families don’t have the resources to build large camps or invest in advertising their camps. Where luxury bubble camps often accommodate groups of 100 or more, the footprint of Bedouin camps is more modest, often housing 20 to 30 guests at a time.
From the outset, Ahmad Mara’yeh wanted his camp, Rum Planet Camp, to be different. During his nearly two decades working in the local tourism industry, he’s organized wild camping stays in the desert as well as 4×4 jeep tours for visitors. When Mara’yeh and his two co-owners decided to open their own camp, they had a bold vision: to create a successful model of operating in the desert that is closely aligned to the Bedouin way of life, is sustainable for the future, and could serve as inspiration for the rest of the community.
To start, Rum Planet Camp is intentionally small at 15 double-occupancy tents. While the camp has the funds to install air-conditioning in every tent and even build bubble tents—a feature often requested by guests—Mara’yeh and his co-owners Hasan Mara’yeh and Falah Zawaideh have decided to stay authentic. “If we install ACs, we will prevent people from experiencing the desert the way it is, from feeling the real weather,” says Mara’yeh.
“Bedouins have lived here for thousands of years and they’ve never used AC. We use natural ways to cool down like sitting in shades by the mountainsides while gathering around the fire. That’s what we want our guests to experience as well.”
Understanding the Bedouin way of life
Staying at a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum helps you experienced the local culture—through unique opportunities like having lunch with a Bedouin family or learning more about camel husbandry with Bedouin herders.
Guests interact with the people who live and work in Wadi Rum and call this desert home. Through stargazing lessons at night, Bedouin meals like zarb, and traditional games like sejah, travelers can get an insight into Bedouin customs and gain a new perspective on the realities of living in the desert.
Bedouin culture is rooted in coexisting with the desert. Acutely aware of Jordan’s water scarcity issue, progressive camps like the one Mara’yeh runs are focused on water conservation efforts like collecting rainwater and using only native plants that require little to no watering in the camp landscaping designs. Mara’yeh’s camp is looking to go even further with plans to switch 4×4 jeep use during desert treks to camels and foot traffic only and replace plastic water bottles with stainless steel bottles for every guest to use.
“Bubble camps are everywhere, but the Bedouin culture is what’s unique about Wadi Rum,” says Mara’yeh. “If you want to know more about the Bedouins and our way of life, you should stay at a place that belongs to this area. Otherwise, why come here at all?”
Yulia Denisyuk Yulia Denisyuk is a travel photographer and writer with a passion for the Middle East. For past assignments, she’s shared a roof with nomads in Mongolia and learned the art of Imigongo with artist collectives in Rwanda.