Destinations

The Race to Save Petra From Its Own Success

Aug 18, 2013 11:34 am

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Keeping the amazing heritage of Petra in good shape, and conserve it for future generations means playing a delicate balancing game with current demand for tourists to visit the unstable area.

— Rafat Ali

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Larry Downing  / Reuetrs

U.S. President Barack Obama stops to look at the Treasury as he takes a walking tour of the ancient historic and archaeological site of Petra March 23, 2013. Larry Downing / Reuetrs


A victim of its own success and fragility, the World Heritage site of Petra is currently under assessment to limit the safety risks it poses to both tourists and its local population.

A two-and-a-half year UNESCO project, which was launched in July 2012 to monitor the slopes in the Siq as a response to the instability of its sandstone rocks, unearthed other underlying challenges facing the site, according to UNESCO.

Monitoring devices have been installed to identify and document the most unstable areas in the Siq, the 1.2-kilometre path leading to the iconic Treasury, and will result in the creation of a set of guidelines to better manage the site and mitigate risk.

RelatedThe tourist Obama gawks at Petra on his trip, like millions have before

In 2009, the minister of tourism and antiquities contacted UNESCO to warn that a large block of stone in the Siq was likely to detach and fall, which prompted a decision to install metal bars to secure the anchoring of the stone a year later.

Shifting stones are common in the ancient city due to the unique geology of the site, as sandstone is severely affected by weathering but also absorbs water easily, which could freeze once captured inside the stone, posing a risk for cracks, according to experts.

“Petra has the typical Jordanian terrain with very little vegetation to hold the soil together, and with climate change today, you have less precipitation but an increased risk of flashfloods,” Anna Paolini, director of the UNESCO Amman Office, told The Jordan Times.

Flashfloods increase the risk of cracks and mudslides, which are among the threats to the longevity of the site and to the tourists’ safety.

“The purpose of the rehabilitation of the Siq was mainly to limit flashfloods,” Petra National Trust (PNT) Executive Director Aysar Akrawi said in a recent interview.

“In 1994, 21 French tourists died in the Siq, and every year, a couple of people from the community fall victims to them,” Akrawi noted.

Besides the efforts to ensure safety in the Siq, tourists need to make “an informed decision” on visiting the site, according to Paolini, especially if the tourist is of a certain age or suffers a physical condition.

“There is a need to reinforce the security on the site due to its complexity. Risk in Petra is something that needs to be taken into consideration… [there are risks of] getting lost, falling, dehydration, heart attacks…,” she added.

Petra, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, attracts 600 to over 2,000 visitors per day depending on the season, according to the Petra Archaeological Park (PAP).

“The reputation of Petra makes it possible to manage projects and… the Siq project is very important because it deals directly with the safety of the tourists,” said Emad Hijazeen, deputy chief commissioner at PAP.

Involving the local community

According to a UNESCO 2010 rapid assessment report, 41 per cent of the local residents surveyed said they see Petra as a source of income, whereas over a third of them did not know that Petra was a World Heritage Site.

“The economic value of the site is the most commonly understood just as for any site in the world… and there is a need for concerted efforts with the local population,” Akrawi noted.

Although most of the local residents have been working in the site over the years and a majority of them consider Petra to be their home, those working on the site are not integrated at a management level. In addition, the UNESCO assessment revealed that less than 10 per cent of the surveyed tourists said they had interacted with the local community.

“If you want your local communities to become protectors of the site, they need to buy in,” Akrawi pointed out.

“You need to give the people from Petra the tools to manage their own site… but bedouins are not yet involved in the decision-making process even if it is the intention,” she added

Officials at the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority (PDTRA) said they are already trying to involve the bedouins by hiring them as guards or guides at the visitor centre.

They added, however, that the most conservation positions require a specific set of skills and the demand falls mostly on geologists, water experts and archaeologists.

The lack of personnel is one of the main areas of concern for UNESCO, whose objective is to ensure the follow-up of the Siq project is in Jordanian hands after the assessment period is over.

“The idea is to train Jordanians to be able to read and analyse the data, but you need an expert to interpret it and the problem we face is that we don’t have enough people to train for the time being,” Paolini said.

“As the monitoring will have to continue after the project ends, having competent trained personnel will be the only way to allow sustainability of the project in the long term,” she noted.

A scientific advisory committee was recently formed with members representing all stakeholders to find common solutions to the issues facing the site.

“We try to engage everybody to get the best results out of the project and everyone represents different specialisations so it offers a more holistic approach,” Hijazeen told The Jordan Times over the phone.

Out of the Petra entry ticket prices, the sum reallocated to conservation has doubled from 10 per cent in 2009, and Hijazeen said the size of the Petra park and the many challenges it faces require this amount to be increased in the future.

The UNESCO Siq Stability project was officially launched in July 2012 and is funded by the Italian government in partnership with the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection, the PNT and the PDTRA, among others.

(c)2013 the Jordan Times (Amman, Jordan)

Visit the Jordan Times (Amman, Jordan) at www.jordantimes.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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