We recently sat down with Deborah Regen of EcoTourLinQ for a spotlight interview. She’s created an online test site for a community of people “like you who are concerned with environmental conservation and responsible travel”. You can find her original spotlight post here – Spotlight: Interview with Engaging Cultures.
WHAT WAS YOUR PRIMARY MOTIVATION TO LAUNCH THIS COMPANY?
All three founders have personally experienced the power of travel to connect, inspire, and be a global force for good. We’ve been lucky enough to continue to be radically changed not through seeing rocks but by interacting deeply with real people from a dramatically different culture than our own. That is what we want others to experience when they travel.
Therefore, this idea of seeking deeper understanding and helping others come to new realizations and perspectives along with us through travel was a primary motivation in our decision to launch Engaging Cultures Travel. By facilitating this type of travel, ultimately we believe it will enrich people’s lives, relationships and cultures, and at the same time experience some of the world’s most amazing sites.
WHAT CHANGES – IF ANY – HAVE YOU MADE OVER THE YEARS IN MANAGING THIS COMPANY?
After the first year or so, we realized we didn’t want to hit the mass market. We decided if we were to add value to our guests’ 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 and realize as one of our mentors Seth Godin says, that “…following the well-lit path, offers little in the way of magic”.
WHAT DO YOUR CUSTOMERS SAY THEY LIKE BEST ABOUT YOUR COMPANY AND THE TOURS?
Our guests say they like the connection and exclusive insider perspective they feel when they travel with us. Over and over we hear something along the lines of a recent guest, “the best part was the people!!!”. This thrills us.
HOW DO YOU FIND AND SELECT YOUR TOUR GUIDES?
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’s important to us that our guides are thoughtful, safe, and respectful to the local host community as well as to our guests.
EXPLAIN MORE ABOUT HOW YOU SET UP HOME-STAYS AND WHY YOU OFFER THIS OPTION?
Setting up home-stays are not easy and often can take some time to develop and launch as an offer. Thankfully through relationships we’ve found key people within different communities that help as facilitators and are a voice for our shared Core Values. We offer home-stays because guests are enabled to have an authentic cultural experience by spending enough time with their host to truly bond. In referring to our home-stay option, a guest last week 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 tourism in Jordan, and home-stays can add great value to a tour.
It’s also not just only about connection for us, but economic growth and development in local communities. Home-stays can be essential in allowing a longer stay in the host rural community where friends, local farmers or bedouins are more directly benefited by a visit.
HOW DO YOU ACCOMMODATE A CUSTOMER’S SPECIAL DIET NEEDS SUCH AS VEGAN OR DIABETIC?
Jordan is very vegetarian friendly and in fact Jordan recently was listed in a CNN report as being one of the ‘World’s 11 Best Vegetarian Destinations’! So vegetarians are easy to accommodate and local hosts can make adjustments without too much trouble. Other special diet needs such as diabetic, nut allergy or gluten-free, we take case by case and again are often easily accommodated in restaurants and homes in Jordan.
While Jordan is a progressive Muslim country it is still conservative at heart. The general rule of thumb, for women, is the less skin showing, the less attention you will draw to yourself (it really is for your benefit). Tightness, on the other hand, is not as much of a faux pas as showing skin in this culture.
We also consider the nature of your travel. It’s a great idea to pack layers. During the fall and winter seasons it can go from hot to cold in an instant if you find yourself in the shade as well as in the desert climate evenings.
Bring a good pair of walking shoes if not two! The streets of Jordan are dustier and slightly dirtier than you are probably used to. In addition, you will be off the asphalt path in most of the places you are walking. In the spring and summer months many tourists like to walk around in open toed shoes or sandals like Chacos, however, many choose to always wear something closed toed to avoid stubbing toes on rocks.
Our necessity list would include a camera, hat for the sun, sunscreen and swimsuit for floating in the magical waters of the Dead Sea!
WHAT SURPRISES TRAVELERS THE MOST ABOUT JORDAN?
I think Jordan really surprises travelers and the country exceeds their expectations. The hospitality, safety, and sheer kindness of the Jordanian people is unmatched to many places in the world. I know it sounds biased, but all you have to do is talk to someone who has traveled to Jordan and they speak of the country’s unique landscapes, archaeology, & the wonderful people. I hear world travelers, over and over, say Jordan as a country exceeds expectations and is one of their favorite countries they have ever visited.
DO YOU OFFER CUSTOMIZED TOURS? IF SO, GIVE AN EXAMPLE OR TWO.
Yes, almost everything we do is a custom offer. For many Jordan is a trip of a lifetime, so we want to hear what people want to do and more importantly what they don’t want to do on their trip. One example, we recently hosted a British couple living in South Africa who live on an olive farm and they just purchased a new olive press. They contacted us and asked if we could get them on a Jordanian olive farm and see how their olive press works. We arranged for a home-stay in north Jordan and a private tour of harvesting olives with local farmers and having the owner of a local olive press guide them through the process of making olive oil. After three days there, they set off for Petra and the Dead Sea!
HOW DO YOU DEFINE ECOTOURISM? HOW DO YOU SEE ECOTOURISM EVOLVING IN THE KINGDOM?
We work out of The International Ecotourism Society’s definition that ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education”. We narrow it down to our day to day talk as “Don’t mess it up, make it better”. Therefore, we are committed to preserving the cultural and natural resources of host communities and empowering people to have opportunities that improve their lives.
In regards to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, ecotourism is evolving and hopefully becoming a path for the future. The award winning Feynan Eco Lodge has set the pace for many. In partnership with The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature the lodge generates all its own electricity through solar panels. The vision of the lodge is not only on sustainable energy but local community involvement as well. Local awareness and innovation in ecotourism has also increased over the last few years, so we are hopeful this way of seeing the industry will only drive sustainability, employment, and the responsibility we have to the world and ourselves.
IN SUMMARY, WHY SHOULD PEOPLE VISIT JORDAN AND WHY SHOULD THEY CHOOSE “ENGAGING CULTURES TRAVEL?”
Why visit Jordan? I believe Jordan will leave a mark on your soul & the table is set for transformative travel through nature, archeology, and Jordanians themselves.