As the muezzin's early morning call to prayer echoes around the narrow, dusty streets of Orjan, Mohamad Dwekat and his wife, Maysoon, begin their day. Here in the Al Ayoun region of Jordan, about an hour north of the capital, Amman, the dawn air is deliciously cool and laden with the scent of pine and pomegranate. Cleaning out the tabun - clay oven - in the courtyard of his simple home, Dwekat stops to greet a shepherd herding his flock of goats towards the nearby hills.
Three French tourists are scheduled to arrive at Dwekat's three-storey house before lunch. They will sleep in comfortable beds with crisp linen sheets. They will dine on the freshest hummus and mouth-watering maklouba (a casserole of meat and rice) from Maysoon's bustling kitchen. Guided by Dwekat, they will explore Al Ayoun's spectacular scenery and immerse themselves in Jordan's culture and hospitality.
"We want people to feel like they are staying with their own family in their own home," explains Dwekat, in broken English. "By the end of their stay, all our visitors have become friends, regardless of race or religion."
Dwekat's homestay is just one example of how sustainable tourism is breaking down barriers and bringing vital income to less well-off Jordanians across this typically conservative country. From Al Ayoun in the north to Azraq in the east and Dana in the west, projects run by and for communities are changing people's lives.
"Jordan has established a new model for sustainable tourism in the Middle East," says Nasr Al-Tamimi, acting director of Wild Jordan, a business unit attached to the country's Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). "Humans and nature interacting and profiting from each other: it's a simple philosophy but, when it's implemented successfully, it can make a huge difference."
Al Ayoun is a breath of fresh air. In a country that is 90 per cent desert, this is a verdant region renowned for its luscious fruit and syrupy olive oil. Vines, figs and wheat all thrive here, while the region's deep valleys and canyons shelter forests of pistachio, wild pear and ancient olive trees. Inhabited since Neolithic times, the area is steeped in history and dotted with the ruins of sacrificial altars and ancient tombs.
Established in 2008, the Al Ayoun Society - to which Dwekat belongs - was one of Jordan's first tourism cooperatives. Comprising about 30 members from Orjan and two neighbouring villages, the society has established a 12km trail for tourists to explore and teaches households how to host overseas visitors.
"At first it was difficult to persuade local people to take money for their homestays," says Mohamad Swalmeh, a member of the society and former mayor of Al Ayoun. "Jordanian tradition tells us to receive guests into our homes without asking for anything in return."
"The traditional Arab upbringing is essentially a master's course in hospitality," says Amman-based Jon Killpack, co-founder of Engaging Cultures, which has been running olive harvesting tours in Orjan since 2011. "The hardest thing we've had to do is to make farmers understand that our clients really want to help them in the field. At first they wanted to sit all morning with their guests, sharing cups of mint tea brewed over the fire."
The driving force behind Jordan's burgeoning sustainable-tourism industry is the RSCN, and its Wild Jordan subsidiary. The former manages many of Jordan's nature reserves but remains separate from the state, affording it a unique position when it comes to overseeing nature conservation and sustainable-tourism initiatives.
The RSCN believes small-scale, managed tourism is the best way to protect Jordan's delicate ecosystems. A stone's throw from Orjan, the Ajloun Forest Reserve is one of its flagship projects, boasting a clutch of eco-friendly guest cabins and a network of trails winding between the trees. Revenue from the site is ploughed back into conservation.
Living primarily off the land, few residents of Orjan and the surrounding villages are big earners. To bolster incomes the RSCN has trained women here to produce organic soap that incorporates locally produced olive oil and herbs. The delicately fragranced bars are sold in the Ajloun Forest Reserve shop and other Wild Jordan outlets across the country.
It's a similar story at Orjan's Biscuit House, where two women produce all-natural biscuits under the RSCN's Tasali brand for national distribution.
"The women living in the rural areas of Jordan are often very smart," says Anwar Ahmad, who has been supervising production at the Biscuit House for the past two years. "The RSCN has given us a chance to express our talent and entrepreneurship."
Encircled by stony desert, communities in Azraq, an oasis town located far to the east of Ajloun and Al Ayoun, suffer from a high level of socio-economic deprivation, due largely to the overextraction of water and decline of the local salt industry. Having turned a 1940s British field hospital into a tourist lodge, the RSCN pays a team of Azraq women a monthly salary to produce painted ostrich eggs, children's toys, clothing and other handicrafts.
"There are simply no other jobs in Azraq," explains egg painter Alia Alma'az, who supervises a team of five. "This is a safe environment where women can come to work and contribute to their family's income."
There can be few greater sights in Jordan than sunset over the Dana Biosphere Reserve, showpiece of the RSCN. Established in 1989 and extending over 300 sq km of southwest Jordan, this hugely dramatic ecosystem drops from a height of 1,500 metres through rocky gorges and canyons towards Wadi Feynan and the Wadi Araba border crossing, south of the Dead Sea, which contains the lowest point on Earth.
Once largely abandoned due to a lack of local jobs, the village of Dana is gradually coming back to life. The RSCN has set up a reliable water supply and a small group of women now produce jam for sale, made from fruit grown in nearby orchards. Also sold in the reserve shop are locally grown herbs and silver jewellery fashioned in a workshop attached to the Dana Reserve Guesthouse.
"From Dana to Ajloun, the RSCN has tried to replicate its successes and learn from its mistakes," says Mohammed Zaarour, the RSCN's director of strategic development. "From the overexploitation of natural resources through to societal issues such as gender barriers, Jordanian environments and communities still face many challenges.
"There's no room to rest on our laurels."
Perhaps the most impressive testament to the RSCN's progressive philosophy and the development of the Jordanian sustainable-tourism industry is the newly completed Ajloun Nature Academy, which sits on the site of a former quarry, opposite the Ajloun Forest Reserve. The academy is the first institution in the Middle East to offer courses in socio-economic development and biodiversity conservation.
"We have already assisted neighbouring countries such as Syria and Lebanon with their own projects integrating conservation and socio-economic development," says Zaarour. "By giving more people skills that are in demand, the academy will not only benefit sustainable development in Jordan, but the entire Middle East."
Getting there: Royal Jordanian Airlines operates four direct flights weekly between Hong Kong and Amman. On The Go Tours (onthegotours.com) offers a five-day, four-night tour of Jordan that takes in the Ajloun Forest Reserve and Dana Biosphere Reserve, from US$1,200 per person, including accommodation, transfers and guides.