top of page

Lessons in Sustainable Tourism from Jordan

By Joylin Namie

The famed Treasury in Petra on a fairly light day for tourist traffic in January 2020. Photo by the author.

Joylin Namie, Program Coordinator and Professor in Anthropology at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada, was a participant in the 2020 CAORC-ACOR Faculty Development Seminar to Jordan. In this essay, she highlights the differing ways that Nevada and Jordan have addressed sustainable development challenges amid similar marginal arid settings.

As I write this from northern Nevada (Spanish for “snow covered”) in early February, having returned from a mountain bike ride in unseasonable 70 degree weather, with not a flake on the ground, my mind turns to drought and (un)sustainable tourism, especially the contrasts between what I experienced in Jordan and what I know to be happening in my adopted home state.

In spite of being 7,000 miles apart, the two locations are remarkably similar. Both are arid desert interspersed with mountainous terrain. Both are also water poor. Nevada is the driest state in the United States, with average annual precipitation of 9.5 inches. Most of Jordan’s desert receives less than five inches of rain a year, while rainfall in the mountains ranges from 11 to 23 inches. The majority of water use goes to agriculture in both places, in Nevada for hay to feed cattle for meat production, and alfalfa in Jordan for sheep. Jordan also grows several water intensive food crops, including olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, and watermelon.

Peavine Mountain Trails, Reno, Nevada, February, 2020

Population growth is a major issue for both locations, increasing demand for water for residential use, especially in urban areas, like Amman (Jordan’s capital) and Las Vegas. Leaky pipes, illegal tapping, and contamination are crucial issues throughout Jordan. In Nevada, the southern portion of the state receives four inches of rain per year, but accounts for three quarters of water use. In Las Vegas, the major population center, single- and multi-family homes account for 60 percent of water consumption, 70 percent of which is used for landscaping (EPA, 2016).

Tourism is a major economic driver in Jordan and Nevada. Nevada’s tourism, though, depends heavily on outdoor recreation and casino gambling, creating significant challenges for water management.

Photo of Las Vegas showing water features. Image credit: chensiyuan. CC BY-SA ( No changes were made to this image.

Las Vegas is the most popular tourist destination in Nevada, receiving 42 million visitors per year and generating $60 billion of the state’s $68 billion in tourism revenue (Nevada Resort Association Fact Book, 2019). Las Vegas casinos alone use about 3 billion gallons of water annually, 54 percent of which is consumed inside hotel rooms (Trabia, 2014). Water consumption per person in Las Vegas hotels can be as much as three times that of people living at home (Barberan et al., 2013). An additional 504 million gallons goes to landscaping, often with non-native and/or non-drought resistant plants. Although some hotels have implemented conservation measures, including installation of low flow plumbing fixtures, these efforts cannot compensate for water loss from overconsumption and evaporation from swimming pools, fountains, and golf courses. Water levels in the Colorado River and Lake Mead, major sources of water for southern Nevada, continue to drop. Recommended changes, such as using grey water from hotels for irrigation, have not been adopted. Others, such as rain water harvesting, are impractical due to lack of precipitation.

While outdoor recreation is popular throughout the state, winter snowsports are concentrated in northern Nevada and neighboring California, primarily near Lake Tahoe. Given the inconsistent snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which is not very “nevada” in some years, snowmaking accounts for significant water use. One local resort used 32 million gallons of water to open but five of its trails for use in one recent season (Rassler, 2018). The same resort also purchased snowmaking equipment that allows it to make snow in 90 degree weather, which it does for action sports camps for skiers and snowboarders in the summer.

None of this is sustainable.

As a cultural anthropologist, what struck me when visiting tourist destinations in Jordan was the different ethos that prevailed there.

Las Vegas is defined by excess. It is an example of vacation as a liminal state removed from everyday life where one can act in ways one would never do at home, like shopping for groceries in a bikini (Gmelch, 2008). Vegas is about bending, if not breaking, culturally prescribed rules of conduct. Food, alcohol, and sex are readily available for a price throughout the day and night. Indeed, it is challenging from inside of a casino to discern day from night amid the constant throng of people, sound, and artificial light. One exists in some sense outside of time and place. What one does there, stays there, or so the slogan goes. How can conservation be encouraged when the prevailing ethos promotes overconsumption as part of the package?

Contrast this with Jordan’s top tourist destination, the ancient city of Petra. Jordan’s $5 billion tourism industry hinges on the 1.1 million visitors that visited Petra in 2019 (up a startling 37% from the year prior). Like many tourist destinations in Jordan, Petra represents cultural history. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. The draw there is appreciation and, arguably, conservation. One factor I believe contributes to moderation over excess among visitors to Jordan’s historical sites is their visible fragility. It is important that excavated sites, like fragile mosaics or, on a larger scale, the sandstone monuments of Petra, be maintained either through protective efforts or by limiting tourist access to protect them.

Mosaic floor from the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damianus at Jerash. Photo by the author.

There is also the ubiquitous presence of Islam, as we were gently reminded of by calls to prayer throughout the day. Alcohol use and gambling are not readily promoted as part of the tourist experience, and are prohibited for much of the local population. People, especially women, dress modestly and speak softly (unless hawking their wares). Tourists dress accordingly and, for the most part, appear to follow instructions, staying on trails and doing as little damage as possible. Although there are issues with child labor and animal welfare at Petra, and plastic water bottles in larger numbers than one might like, conservation of the archaeological heritage is of primary concern among the increasing numbers of visitors. The ethos here is one of respect over revelry. One is anchored in time and place, conscious of one’s every step, placing each foot carefully, praying that what is here, stays here.

Works Cited

Barberán, R., Egea, P., Gracia-De-Rentería, P. and M. Salvador. (2013). Evaluation of water saving measures in hotels: A Spanish case study. International Journal

of Hospitality Management, 34: 181-91.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (2016). Saving water in Nevada.

Gmelch, S. (2008). Why tourism matters. In J. Spradley and D. McCurdy (Eds.), Conformity

and Conflict, 13th Edition, pp. 354-364. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Rassler, R. (2018). Snowmaking in the time of drought. Sustainable Play.

Trabia, S. (2014). Water use on the Las Vegas strip: Assessment and suggestions for

conservation. Honor Thesis. University of Nevada, Las Vegas.


CAORC’s 2020 faculty development seminar to Jordan was organized with the American Center of Oriental Research and supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.


About the Author

Joylin Namie is a professor of anthropology at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada. She was among 12 faculty participants in the seminar “Jordan: Sustainability at the Margins,” an intensive capacity-building and curriculum development seminar held January 2–17, 2020, in Amman and at sites throughout Jordan.


bottom of page