Exploring the tourism development landscape in Aqaba

Kimberly Cavanagh was a Fulbright Scholar (2019–2020) residing at ACOR while undertaking research to complete her book manuscript exploring tourism development in Aqaba, with the working title “Shifting Landscapes: The Social and Economic Development of Aqaba, A Red Sea City.” Dr. Cavanagh is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and a previous ACOR-CAORC Pre-Doctoral Fellow (2005).

Kimberley Cavanagh, 2020. Photo courtesy of the author.

My current monograph project, “Shifting Landscapes: The Social and Economic Development of Aqaba, A Red Sea City,” seeks to understand how the social and economic landscapes of Aqaba are being reshaped as tourism-related development alters the physical landscape. Specifically, it delves into the ways the local population understands how this promised development has either been realized or fallen short of its goals for economic and social empowerment over the last fifteen years. The fieldwork has employed a multi-scalar approach to data collection, exploring the multitude of ways that the various communities of Aqaba—residents, business owners, and policy makers—have experienced this development over the past decade and a half. This longitudinal study, which began in 2005 while I was an ACOR-CAORC Pre-Doctoral Fellow, carries with it the possibility of informing public policies concerning development plans and of ensuring that the voices of the local population are heard, not only in Aqaba and Jordan but also in communities worldwide.

This research combines ethnography and critique in its exploration of the global in (re)defining the local by considering the impact of the promised-versus-realized large-scale urban tourism development within Aqaba, a small Jordanian city located on the Red Sea. I contend that the identities of the citizens change as the city itself undergoes “renovation” through political adjustments, globalization, tourism development, and commercialization. My core argument is that these transformations provide opportunities of empowerment, albeit often limited, for marginalized populations who attempt to broaden the dominant local identity by taking advantage of new economic opportunities and increasing their agency within the city, although not via the typical service-industry jobs that come along with tourism development. It will demonstrate the varied ways that the global and the local can partner to create rich cultural exchanges, an integral aspect to sustainable tourism development beyond the sun, sand, and sea promoted by official entities. My work aims to provide a fine-grained ethnographic portrait of the lived social and economic realities that the residents of Aqaba experience within the transition to becoming a “developed” city. As such, it is relevant beyond Jordan to communities undergoing similar urban tourism development worldwide.

This case study also contributes to a wider theoretical perspective on the commodification of space and place in relation to how both are often re-created and privileged for the consumption of others outside the local cultural and social contexts, which often leads to the marginalization—and resentment—of the local residents. Exploring what is currently being experienced in Aqaba can bring about a more nuanced understanding of similar phenomena playing out in destinations across the globe where tourism is being used as the main economic driver, such throughout the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, where—as in Aqaba—the very landscapes are being physically changed in significant ways that have impacts on the local people and ecosystems. Furthermore, this research speaks to the growing scholarship on the deterritorialization of economic development through special economic zones. This process has been a push of neoliberal development around the world and certainly throughout the Middle East.

There are two key reasons I chose to make ACOR my home while undertaking this Fulbright-sponsored final stage of research for my book project. The first is access to resources. The wealth of materials housed in the ACOR Library has been integral to my research. Their Photo Archive especially has proven to hold a trove of data for examining the extent of development that has occurred in Aqaba over the past few decades. While this archive is accessible via the internet, being able to work with the Photo Archive team directly was quite beneficial. The second reason is community. Being able to connect daily—usually over lunch—with the learning community ACOR has nurtured is one of the research center’s greatest strengths. These interdisciplinary conversations have helped to shape my approach to research over the years, from introducing me to new ways of thinking about methodologies and theory to suggesting additional people to connect with in order to offer a fresh perspective on data that I have been looking at for so many years.

Inspired by the multidisciplinary nature of ACOR, my research aims to contribute to wider interdisciplinary discussions as it spans multiple areas of interest, such as the Middle East, tourism, globalization, and development, in addition to cultural anthropology. My goal is to make this work not only appropriate for researchers but also relatable beyond the academy and useful to policy makers and practitioners.


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