Middle East

Jordan battling to rescue key earner tourism

The ruins Jabal Al-Qalaa (the Castle Mountain) and the ancient Roman theater in the background in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

AMMAN: Natural wonders it has in abundance, but natural resources are lacking. And now one of Jordan’s main money-earners – tourism – is being killed off by regional conflicts.

A haven of peace surrounded by war, Jordan is turning to contingency measures to try to revive its tourism industry, which is suffering because of the raging violence in its neighbors Iraq and Syria.

Tourism in 2014 contributed 14 percent of the kingdom’s gross domestic product, to the tune of $4.4 billion, the second-highest earner after remittances from expatriates.

But the flow of tourism revenue is becoming a trickle.

“For three days I haven’t had a tourist come in here,” said 30-year-old Mohammad of his souvenir shop in central Amman. “Things are slowing down, and each year seems to be worse than the last.”

The Hashemite kingdom has no shortage of acclaimed wonders, both natural and man made.

Its rose-pink rock-hewn city of Petra is one of the ancient world’s greatest sites, and the Roman ruins at Jerash in the north of the country near the border with Syria are among the region’s most impressive. The desert at Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea have always figured high on the list of the country’s natural attractions.

Until recent years, such sites attracted hundreds of thousands of Western tourists on the trail of the first great civilizations.

But now they are devoid of visitors, frightened off by regional unrest in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring that swept across the Middle East and North Africa.

In those four years, the number of people who visit Petra every year has nearly halved – from just under a million in 2010 to around 600,000 last year. Ten hotels there have had to shut their doors.

And revenue from tourism was down 15 percent during the first four months of 2015 on last year, falling to $1.5 billion.

Tourism Minister Nayef al-Fayez attributed the fall to “the absence among visitors of visibility on the situation in Jordan.”

The head of the country’s tourism office, Abderrazak Arabyat, has now come up with an emergency plan aimed at raising Jordan’s international profile and “getting out of this situation.”

“There’s no magic wand we can wave to fix things in a few weeks,” Fayez told AFP. “But we have put in place an ambitious plan targeting in particular the countries of the Gulf” such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

New markets including Turkey and the Far East will also be approached, among them China, Japan and South Korea, with the hope of seeing positive results “from next year.”

There is also a rethink on diversifying the actual product and boosting services such as medical tourism.

According to Fawzi Hamouri, who heads the country’s association of private clinics, “Jordan has become the prime medical destination in the Middle East and North Africa,” with 250,000 foreign patients treated in 2014.

Some Jordanians in the industry believe the authorities are not doing enough, however.

Travel agent Salama Khattar deplores what he called the absence of a “clear and ambitious program of work” to relaunch tourism.

“We have made no profits since 2011. We are paying the overheads out of our own pockets,” he said.

In the past four years, Khattar’s travel agency which brings tourist groups from Belgium, France, Norway and Sweden has seen its business cut in half.

Amman emphasizes safety to try to reassure foreign visitors, but Jordanian involvement in the air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq does not mean it is sheltered from extremism.

“It shouldn’t be us who pays the price,” the tourism minister said, since Jordan “is not part of the problem in the region.”

Julien, a young French tourist visiting the towering Roman theater dominating the center of Amman, said he had no regrets about coming.

“A great stay, and no sense of feeling insecure despite a few initial reservations linked to the current trouble,” he said.

Western governments regularly warn their citizens that Jordan is not immune from the violence that afflicts the region. “The threat of terrorism remains high in Jordan,” the U.S. State Department’s current travel advisory says.

The last attack in the country was in 2005, when suicide bombers blew themselves up in three of the capital’s hotels, killing 60 people.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 22, 2015, on page 9.

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