Aqaba — Jordan’s ‘Bride of the Red Sea’
Amman - Nicknamed the “Bride of the Red Sea” and envied for its strategic location between Asia and Africa, Aqaba in southern Jordan forms, with the Red Rose City of Petra and Wadi Rum, the Hashemite Kingdom’s golden triangle of tourism.
Situated in the Gulf of Aqaba 330km south of Amman, the country’s only coastal city is bracing to become a major tourism hub with its many sun-baked beach resorts offering a large choice of water sports and activities.
Home to hundreds of types of coral and sponges and a wealth of brilliantly coloured fish, Aqaba is a prime destination for scuba divers with notable dive sites such as the Yamanieh coral reef in the Aqaba Marine Park, south of the city.
Despite a slowdown in Jordan’s tourism sector caused by regional turmoil and instability, Aqaba, also home to the Islamic-era Aqaba Fort and the adjacent Aqaba Archaeological Museum, is wooing an increasing number of tourists.
“I loved the place,” Sylvia Beamish of Ireland said. “It has an intimate, friendly and very distinct feel about it. It was authentically Arabic but also very warm and welcoming.”
Beamish’s 17-year-old son, Joseph, was enthusiastic about his first diving adventure in the Red Sea. “I received my certification in scuba diving from a school in one of the local resorts. The shipwreck and underwater tank in the dive site were just amazing,” he said.
Local businesses say tourist activity has picked up — slowly but steadily — with the port city being included on the itinerary of cruise ships.
“It is a good sign,” said Mohammed Attar, manager of a food store. “We depend mainly on Jordanians and some tourists from the Gulf but we hope to see some good activity in the summer holiday.”
The Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) said three cruise ships carrying about 6,000 European tourists have docked in Aqaba port since the beginning of the year. The location is expected to receive up to 50,000 tourists as part of the cruise ships’ programme by the end of 2017.
In the first half of 2016, Aqaba received 278,423 visitors with April being the busiest month with 89,176 tourists, ASEZA said. Russian tourists made up the largest number of visitors (23,788) followed by Saudis (5,884), Americans (5,320), Britons (4,302) and Germans (3,912).
“I believe that the situation around us presented a unique opportunity to Aqaba to become a favoured destination for tourists from the Gulf and Europe, especially Russians,” said Ahmad al- Ameer, a shop owner in Aqaba.
“It is well known that Russians travel to Egypt mainly to stay on the beach but following security incidents in which tourists were targeted they stopped going there, so Aqaba was the next choice for them,” he added.
In October 2015, Russia and Britain suspended flights to Egyptian Red Sea resorts after a Russian plane carrying 224 passengers exploded over Sinai en route from Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg. The explosion was reportedly caused by a bomb on board, raising questions about security at Egyptian airports.
Aqaba, a city of nearly 190,000, is also seeking to develop sports tourism through the construction of a modern sports city, which it hopes to turn into a centre for regional and international tournaments and sports camps.
The sports city, set up for several types of sports, will be built within the borders of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone, 12km from the city centre, over 255,000 sq. metres.
“It will be a prime destination for sportsmen and sportswomen,” said sports journalist Ayman Khateeb. “Having a sports city in Aqaba is a great idea as it will become a training facility for all teams locally, regionally and globally, taking advantage of its moderate weather all year around.”
The sports city will have a football pitch with a capacity for 5,000 spectators, a running track, several outdoor courts for basketball, volleyball and handball and a fitness centre in addition to other facilities.
Visitors of Aqaba will likely be thrilled to see the ruins of Ayla, the first Islamic city outside the Arabian Peninsula built around 650AD, and the world’s oldest church, Aqaba Church, dating to the late third century AD, slightly older than Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Being Jordan’s only seaside outlet, the city is particularly popular with the residents of the country’s inland capital.
“Nothing beats going to the beach and watching the kids playing and swimming. Aqaba will always have a place in our heart and it is true we have seen many seaside cities around the world but still there is something about Aqaba that evokes your senses and I call it a sense of belonging,” said Ibtisam Awadat, a resident of Amman.
Whether tourists are looking for a rush of adrenaline below the water surface, a trip back in time through the ancient ruins or to enjoy a shisha at one of the various public beaches, Aqaba has it all.