Jordan struggles to draw new tourists

Recent Karak siege was just the latest setback to an industry in flux.

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    Jordan struggles to draw new tourists
    Visitors to Petra were halved between 2014 and 2015, according to reports [Eoin Wilson/Al Jazeera]

    Amman, Jordan - For weeks after last month's deadly castle siege in the Jordanian city of Karak, police maintained a daily presence in an armoured Jeep in the heart of the capital Amman.

    A helmeted police officer constantly manned the heavy machinegun affixed to the Jeep's roof, scanning cars and pedestrians as they navigated through the central neighbourhood of Jabal al-Weibdeh. Other officers stopped and searched vehicles and pedestrians, a patrol that continued up until last week.

    A vibrant neighbourhood comprising Jordanian Muslims, Christians and foreigners, Jabal al-Weibdeh is in many ways an example of the tolerant image that Jordan wants to project to the world - while the heavy, yet temporary police presence illustrates the fine line that Jordan must tread between visible security and not deterring tourists.

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    In 2015, tourism contributed 6 percent directly to Jordan's GDP, and more than 20 percent indirectly, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

    After the Karak siege, the United States warned its citizens of "threats from terrorist groups throughout Jordan", adding to fears about the impacts of the attack on Jordan's tourism sector.

    The modern Jordanian tourism industry was born out of conflict - in particular, Israel's capture and occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967, said Suleiman Farajat, an assistant professor of tourism at the University of Jordan.

    "When Jordan lost the West Bank in 1967, it became very important to focus on Jordanian sites in the east, starting from Petra, where the first management plan was done in 1968," Farajat told Al Jazeera.

    With the rise of oil in the region in the 1970s, the inscription of Petra as a World Heritage Site in 1985, and the filming of 1989's Indiana Jones in Petra, Jordan's international profile rose. The country's peace treaty with Israel in 1994, Farajat said, was a real turning point "when numbers of tourists doubled, and when the infrastructure of tourism became more visible".

    With the inscription of Petra as a World Heritage Site in 1985 and the filming of 1989's Indiana Jones in Petra, Jordan's international profile rose [Eoin Wilson/Al Jazeera]

    But subsequent regional conflicts, including the 2003 Iraq war and the ongoing violence in Syria and Iraq, have heavily impacted Jordan's tourism industry, causing tourist numbers to fall. The Jordan Times reported that visitor numbers to Petra were halved between 2014 and 2015, dropping from 800,000 to 400,000.

    Tourism industry workers are concerned about what lies ahead. Ahmad, a tour guide who works at the Greco-Roman ruins at Jerash - which were also under tightened security after the Karak siege - has witnessed the steady decline in numbers first-hand. Since the outbreak of Syria's civil war in 2011, he estimates there has been an 80 percent drop in tourists to Jerash.

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    "In the high season, we used to do up to five tours a day, each tour guide. Now in the high season we do one every day, sometimes one every two days," said Ahmad, who did not provide a last name. He noted that his profession faces a secondary threat from the increased automation of tour-guide services, including cheaper, headphone audio-guided tours.

    When they do come to Jordan, tourists' demographics have also changed, Ahmad told Al Jazeera, including the replacement of "retirees, Americans, Europeans, on a regular, or traditional tour", with younger, often poorer, tourists.

    "This is reflected in the budget of the tourist. Mostly, the majority come here on a tight budget," he explained, noting that entrance fees to some of Jordan's tourist sites may be prohibitively high. A one-month entry visa to Jordan costs 40 Jordanian dinars ($56), while the entrance fee for a one-day visit to Petra is 50 dinars ($70). 

    When Ahmad began working as a tour guide in 2010, it was a coveted career, he said.

    "In the past it used to be a full-time job, and they used to make very good money. It was the best job to do in Jordan. Some professors left teaching in universities and became tour guides," he explained. "But now it's the opposite. Tour guides are looking for other jobs."

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    As many tour guides struggle to maintain a steady income and morale plummets, Farajat said, this "indirectly influences the quality of service and the culture of service", harming Jordan's competitive advantage in the international market.

    Still, with attacks being staged everywhere from Paris to Berlin, tourists are realising that "it could happen anywhere," Ahmad noted.

    "We had the attack in Karak, and the attack in Germany. How many people were killed here, and there? In Jordan, 10. In Germany, 12," Ahmad recalled telling a group of young, western tourists in Karak on the day of last month's siege.

    "If you talk about terrorism, now it's everywhere in the world. So there's no point in avoiding this country or that, because it can happen in every country."

    Farajat cited the importance of tourism as a way to counter Islamophobic narratives in the West.

    "It's very important in this time of Islamophobia, that tourists come here and see that we are normal people. We don't bite," he said with a laugh. "That's important, right?"

    Certain areas of Jordan - especially the tourist draws of Jerash, Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba - may be hit hardest by any fallout from the Karak siege.

    But Tourism Minister Lina Annab, who kept her post in this month's cabinet shuffle, played down reports of declining tourist numbers during a recent news conference. 

    "It's business as usual and the cancellations have been minimal. Unfortunately, as for danger, there is no place that is 100 percent safe," Annab said. The tourism ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera's requests for further comment.

    When spring finally arrives, bringing warmer weather and wild-flower-covered hills, Ahmad and his colleagues hope more tourists will flock back to the country. Until then, they must persevere, returning to Petra yet again without knowing whether the next day will bring work.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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