Jordan’s travel and tourism industry is to be commended for doing what destinations normally shy away from in times of crisis — confronting the problem head-on. In particular, the Washington, DC, team of the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB) did a great job in countering misconceptions about the safety of traveling to Jordan by inviting selected travel writers and journalists from the United States and Canada to participate in a press trip.
Those who attended the trip from March 25 to April 3, 2011 were given two itineraries to choose from – the Royal Tour, which featured Jordan’s traditional tourist experience (luxury accommodation and activities) or the Eco Tour, which had a very specific aim: to showcase Jordan as a competitor in the eco-tourism market. Both groups visited Jordan’s main tourist attractions such as Petra, Aqaba, Wadi Rum, and the Dead Sea. Of the two, however, the eco tour group’s itinerary was more adventure-driven. It included three major hikes (a four-hour hike in the Dana Nature Reserve, a four-hour hike in Petra, and a six-hour hike in Wadi Mujib) and overnight stays in two campgrounds (Rummana Campgrounds in Wadi Dana and Captain’s Campgrounds in Wadi Rum) and two eco-friendly facilities (Feynan Eco-Lodge and Mujib Chalets).
Having been to Jordan, this reporter opted for the “eco tour” itinerary because it offered new ways to learn about the destination. However, the main draw for this visit to Jordan was to gain a first-hand account on the impact of ongoing conflicts in the region to the country’s travel and tourism industry. I had one basic question in mind: Is it safe to travel to Jordan?
The press trip was a daring show of confidence by Jordan’s public and private travel and tourism stakeholders. It sent out a very clear answer to my question: Yes, there are conflicts in the region, but Jordan remains a safe destination to visit.
Jordanian Tourism Minister Haifa Abu Ghazaleh, though only two months on the job, knows that the situation is complex. She is taking the time to visit tourism sites and talk to visitors herself. More importantly, she has a strategy for Jordan’s travel and tourism industry. Under her vision, Jordan will seek out opportunities in domestic tourism, eco-tourism, and medical tourism. She also recognizes that with easyJet’s new London to Amman service, there is tremendous opportunity to position Jordan as a destination for budget-conscious travelers from the UK and the rest of Europe.
But, there are hurdles to address. On domestic tourism, Minister Haifa Abu Ghazaleh said one of the problems is that Jordanians “don’t know a lot of the sites” and that she wants “to spur Jordanians to visit sites such as Petra, Jerash, and other sites.” She said: “Some of them think it’s expensive to go to Aqaba or the Dead Sea because of the hotels. So, we are now a preparing a tourism media campaign beginning the mid of this month to encourage domestic tourism. It will be supported by the [tourism] ministry. Jordanians will be offered packages varying from one to three nights.”
The minister was keen to point out that Jordan is an established destination for the medical tourism market. The minister said: “Medical tourism is very important for Jordan. We receive a lot of visitors from the region — Libya, Yemen. Jordan is one of the most famous medical tourism destinations in the region. Our medical tourism even competes with some of the countries in Europe. In several areas, Jordan offers the best not only in the Arab region, but even outside of the region.”
In addition to the Dead Sea, the minister said an area close to Karak has been gaining a lot of buzz and has been receiving a lot of visitors. She said she has been to the site herself and was informed by one of the doctors she went with that the water is “curing a lot of illness.” While, her claim is yet to be confirmed by a formal study, it is a widely-known fact that the Dead Sea is the source of minerals that offer a whole range of healthcare remedies that are sold in the forms of soap, mud, bathing salt, and other beautifying products.
Regarding easyJet’s new thrice-weekly service from London’s Gatwick Airport to Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport, the minister said she is “very happy” about it. “I told the CEO of easyJet that [the new service] sends a strong message to the international community that Jordan is [a] safe and secure country,” the minister said, “I told easjyJet’s CEO that we are looking forward to easyJet extending their UK flights to other destinations in Europe. I hope that they will look [into] this in the near future.”
The challenge for Jordan is to convince easyJet’s customers that Jordan can accommodate them, especially in areas like Amman, which has long held a reputation as a luxury destination. When the minister was asked if Jordan is ready to receive budget-type tourists, she said: “For this sector, the prices of [tour] packages will be lower than before. The ticket is very expensive for some of the airlines. The packages being offered now from the UK and the rest of Europe in the near future will be less expensive. This will encourage more tourists to come.”
According to the minister, this does not mean that Jordan will lower its standards. “Our standards are very important for us. In Jordan, we are famous for the standard that we offer to all our guests who have come to Jordan. We don’t want to lower our standards. The package that easyJet will offer will encourage more people to come to Jordan.”
And encouraging people to visit is arguably the day’s single most important hurdle that Jordan’s travel and tourism industry is addressing. The tourism minister is aware of the pervasive negative perception about the Middle East region. This, according to her, has caused a decline in visitors. She said: “This is an impact on the tourism sector, because so many people when they look at Jordan on the map, they can see that it is nearby this country or that country.” Because of its proximity to afflicted areas, she said, “Many people hesitate to come.” She was quick to add that she has received nothing but positive comments from those who actually visit, saying “I met with a group of tourists from the UK yesterday [April 1, 2011], and they told me that they hesitated to come, because so many people told them, ‘no, don’t go.’” The group, the minister said, was thankful that they got on the trip and that the overall attitude is that “they were very happy that they came.”
Furthermore, the minister said specifically that the ongoing conflicts in some of Jordan’s neighboring countries have had a negative impact on Jordan’s travel and tourism “but now we are aware that more tourists are realizing that Jordan is totally different from other countries.”
Different is, of course, the definitive word to describe Jordan based on history. Jordan has consistently served as a country that refugees from other Middle East countries fled to when displaced by conflicts and/or unrest. The minister believes this is because Jordan “is a secure and peaceful country.” According to her, refugees “started coming in 1946 and in 1997, from Palestine then from Iraq and from other parts of the region.” Being hospitable to refugees has inadvertently created a more diverse population for Jordan. The mixture of different cultures has become the single most compelling attribute that makes Jordan “different from other countries” in the Middle East. “The beauty of Jordan is that we are a country of mosaic,” Minister Haifa Abu Ghazaleh said, “We have Christians, Muslims, Bedouins, Jordanians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Druze, all living together.” This harmonious co-existence has created what the minister refers to as a “mosaic culture.”
The tourism minister also made it clear that she has her sights firmly set on the future. According to her, Jordan has 18,000 discovered sites to date. “But we have more than 50,000 sites [yet] to be discovered. We are finding new sites every day, but because of limited resources — not enough time and resources – ” Jordan is not able to able keep up. “There are a lot of issues we need to work on. But, we are trying our best to work on these sites,” she said.
The minister’s positive outlook and the combined efforts of her allies from Jordan’s travel and tourism industry have been paying off. Counting by the busloads of people that showed up at the Visitors’ Center in Petra on March 30, 2011 [shown in the picture above], Jordan is without a doubt sticking to one story: to conduct business as usual. It is a system that has worked since Jordan gained its independence from British mandate in 1946. The past two Fridays showed that some Jordanians exercised their right to free speech and may very well do so again this coming Friday. Regardless, available data confirms that Jordan is a destination that remains to be a kind host to its visitors.