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Many travelers’ desires to get a glimpse into locals’ lives often has pros and cons, and Baraka, an Amman, Jordan-based consulting firm that works with locals and international professionals on how to stimulate economic growth in communities with tourism sites, wants to make sure the positive impacts of tourism outshine the negative.

Baraka founder and managing director Muna Haddad founded the firm in 2012 to change how a destination’s story is told by flipping the script and giving locals more opportunities to share their stories and what various tourism sites in their communities mean to them.

Haddad will talk about changing the storytellers of a destination at Skift Global Forum in New York City on Sept. 27.

Haddad’s mission is to mainstream sustainable tourism methodology, and Baraka works with tourism sites on projects such as visitor management plans, training programs, zoning plans, and tourism marketing strategies. Baraka has worked with eight tourism sites throughout Jordan since it launched six years ago.

Baraka works with sites for three to five years. Haddad said that if locals are empowered to tell their stories, “ego of travel becomes dispersed and others are accounted for.” She started her career at the Jordan Tourism Board and believes that a perfect cup of tea can unite travelers from around the world to go home and tell their own stories of the places they visited.

Following is a conversation with Haddad that will give you a preview of what to expect later this month when she joins Skift at Skift Global Forum.

Skift: There’s been some backlash against tourism in recent years in some parts of the world from locals who feel they’ve been left out of tourism planning conversations and that their homes are being exploited. Why are you and your team optimistic that this doesn’t have to become the norm everywhere?

Haddad: I got frustrated with following the money in these archeological sites we were visiting. Baraka as a word means ‘blessing’ in nine different languages. Tourism can really be a blessing to people’s lives. But it can also be a curse. There was no one in Jordan doing what we’re doing. Baraka originally started as a consulting company designed to work with the private sector, NGOs, and government partners in sustainable tourism practices rather than sustainability being an afterthought.

Skift: One of Baraka’s goals is to change how storytelling is told in destinations. Why do you feel the way to tell stories to travelers has to change?

Haddad: Even when the story of a site is told, the people who live there are not part of the story. This is why in 2015 we established Baraka Destinations, a product under our company. We shifted gears and I said “let’s just build it and show people what we’re talking about.” We collect the story of the place from the locals by literally going house to house and talking to everyone and we use this as a foundation to design tourism experiences.

We partner with local community members and we’re highlighting tourism as a validation tool. Our destinations products have been on the market for a year and a half now. We currently have two destinations and will have a third next year. In September we will roll out a capacity building and training program so that our partners can start taking on that responsibility of marketing. Then the business gets transferred to them.

Skift: Everyone who lives near these sites might have a different version of the story to tell. How do you get everyone on a common ground despite what perspectives they come to you with?

Haddad: One of the big risks in our industry is that we’re all marketing machines. Sustainability is a nice flashy word and so is going green. Clients often don’t hold us accountable to that and green certifications have become so easy to get. A little piece of paper in your hotel room about towels is pathetic. Experiences are tailored to what the travelers want and not what the locals want. We do a town hall and we have a blunt conversation and tell locals the good and bad about tourism, such as how their culture might be impacted. We’re patient. If we were a regular business the easier way to go about this is to go into a partnership with locals and develop something quickly and get it on the market.

Skift: How do you get the word out about these stories and the work you’re doing at these sites?

Haddad: Everyone assumes that they don’t have tourists because of a lack of marketing and they don’t focus enough on the product itself. We spend a lot of time on the product itself and finessing the details on curating the experiences. We nerd out on things such as what the lighting will be like, what time is breakfast, and that you wake up to the smell of freshly baked bread. It’s more than looking at what actually makes them unique. That’s a bit of a cliche with community-based tourism and the approach of an outsider coming from outside to develop versus the locals working with the outside developers makes a difference.

The most significant marketing tool is still word of mouth. We spend very little money on marketing, to be honest. But we encourage travelers to capture real people doing real things and be honest and transparent. Journalists have also been really good to us.

Skift: Your business has grown an impressive 300 percent year-over-year for the first six months of 2018. Does that mean that the number of tourists visiting these sites has also spiked?

Haddad: The number of tourists to these sites hasn’t changed dramatically, and I’m totally fine with that. The metric to measure isn’t and shouldn’t be the number of people zooming through the site, it should be the amount of money they are leaving in the village and the length of stay. Those are our metrics of success from our perspective. We went from tourists benefiting 13 people upon launching to 50 people now, and although we hosted a mere 2,000 tourists of the 30,000 foreigners coming to the site, our tourists spend no less than a full day and up to five days compared to the two hours the others are spending.

DON’T MISS Baraka’s Muna Haddad ON STAGE

Photo Credit: Muna Haddad, founder and managing director of Baraka, will speak at Skift Global Forum in New York City on September 27. Baraka