It's a muggy afternoon at Beit Al Baraka, a sweet, 3 room bed-and-breakfast in the sleepy village of Umm Qais in the north of Jordan. In this village that wakes up to a view of Syria, Israel, Palestinian territories and Lebanon every day, a sense of peace prevails.
Umm Qais is far from a bucket-list destination. The so-called lost city of Petra, the Dead Sea and the Wadi Rum, all in the south of Jordan, take the spotlight. A clutch of tourists makes it to Jerash, the imposing Roman ruins 30 miles north of Amman, the capital. Few venture farther up to Umm Qais; those who do mostly come for the ancient Decapolis city of Gadara, steeped in history that stretches back some 2,400 years. Inhabited since the Ottoman era, until 1989, Gadara offers stunning views of the Sea of Galilee and a roam around Roman theaters and fountains.
On the spring day I visit, Gadara sits eerily empty. Although the city is relatively close to Syria, it is far from the war-torn areas and has felt no direct impact, such as a flood of refugees or a notable military presence. Yet, Umm Qais has suffered greatly from wide-brushstroke travel advisories suggesting that tourists stay away from the north of Jordan, which has been a casualty of collateral damage. The number of tourist arrivals in the country only started to pick up again in 2017.
"This is where we played hide and seek," says our guide, Ahmed Al Omari, pointing at a complex of underground water wells. Born in Gadara, Ahmed grew up amid these ruins. His childhood memories are weaved into the stories of this UNESCO World Heritage site. He shares them as we walk around; his love of the place is palpable. This type of organic insight is what the people at Baraka, an Amman-based consultancy specializing in sustainable tourism development, were aiming for when they launched the tourism initiative at Umm Qais.
"The locals are the ones telling their story at Umm Qais. This is important, because many tourism sites alienate the community," explains Muna Haddad, Baraka's managing director. "In our model, locals are very much part of the story of the place. In fact, they lead the experience."
Tourism can be a potent tool for boosting a local economy - if done right, with a conscience, a vision and a plan. Baraka boasts all three. All the tourism projects in Umm Qais, except for the B&B, are locally owned. Over a period of three years, Baraka works with local leaders to build and operate the businesses, then, once viable, transfer ownership back to them.
Since the B&B officially opened in January 2017 it has hosted more than 1,000 guests. The tourism projects in Umm Qais now employ 38 members of the community, supporting more than 30 families. Instead of staying two hours - in and out to see the ruins of Gadara - people are now staying two days, or longer. In addition to the activities curated and offered by Baraka, there are other places to stay and eat in Umm Qais; it's slowly, but steadily, gaining ground as a tourism destination.
There is plenty to keep visitors busy in and around this village that counts no less than 42 different tribes among its 7,000 inhabitants. Many empires left their traces on what was once a buzzing city of poets, artists and writers. It passed through the hands of the Greeks, the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Ottomans. Today, you can see the vestiges of all these cultures in the water system, the ancient theaters and the baths.
In this age of manufactured insider experiences, Umm Qais offers something rare. Walking around the village as it goes about its day, with children's laughter and the muezzin's chant and no other tourists in sight, there is a sense of discovery. Baraka's project harnesses the power of tourism to usher outsiders into a serene village in a troubled corner of the world.