Jordan feels brunt of regional fallouts
Amman - Jordan is embroiled in regional tensions, whether its air force pilot burned alive by Islamic State (ISIS), its participation in the US-led air strikes on the militant group and its active role in the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen.
The world watched with anxiousness as militants in Iraq and Syria slowly edge towards neighbouring countries, threatening Jordan, Lebanon and the Sinai peninsula, after having established a self-declared caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq.
After conquering Ramadi in Iraq, ISIS controls a highway leading from Baghdad to Amman. The militant group vowed to attack Jordanian shopping malls, kill Jordan’s King Abdullah II and topple his Hashemite dynasty.
All that negative attention has made a victim of Jordan’s tourism sector.
To save it, Jordan launched a campaign to attract visitors from Gulf Arab states to make up for the falling number of Western and Asian visitors.
“Some tourists don’t see Jordan as a relatively stable country with secure borders but one overrun by Islamic State warriors lurking in every corner, just waiting to pounce,” said an agent from the California-based Petra Tours, who asked for anonymity since she was not authorised to speak to the media.
“We have seen a 50-70% drop in travel to the Middle East. When we ask our clients why they’re cancelling, we’re not surprised with the answer,” she told The Arab Weekly in a telephone interview.
The answer is: “The Middle East is overrun by terrorists,” she said.
“This is killing our business.”
There has been a severe impact on foreign visitors to Jordan, especially in the first quarter of 2015, Tourism Minister Nayef Fayez told The Arab Weekly in a telephone interview.
The number of tourists visiting Jordan fell 9.4% in the first quarter of 2015, to 1.12 million from 1.24 million in the period in 2014, Fayez said, adding that there was a further decline this year.
The sector’s quarterly revenue declined to $906.5 million, a drop of 11.9%.
Although the kingdom has been relatively quiet, unrest around it frightened travellers and caused tourist arrivals to fall.
In the first quarter, the number of visitors from Europe fell 27% and North America by more than 20%, Fayez said. Tourists from other Arab countries accounted for nearly 50% of all foreign visitors to the country in the same period.
“That’s why we’re focusing on Arab tourism, especially from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and regional expats because they’re more aware of Jordan’s real status, which could make up for the drop in the last five months,” the minister said.
According to statistics from Fayez’s ministry, the number of
foreign overnight and same-day visitors to Jordan fell from 8.2 million in 2010, prior to the “Arab spring” uprisings, to 5.3 million in 2014.
Nonetheless, they brought in $4.3 billion in revenues in 2014, replenishing the country’s depleted coffers at the time.
Since foreigners have shunned Jordan’s sites, flag carrier Royal Jordanian has announced package deals and hotels are offering promotional room rates — with up to 50% discounts — to attract guests.
The visa fee of about $57 for those travelling in groups of less than five, which had stood since spring 2014, has been waived as the government tries to figure out how to pull in the much-needed revenues of the tourism industry.
“I like Jordan and I’m happy to be here with friends,” said Sally Robinson, 65, of Birmingham, Britain. “I’m not afraid because I know that Jordan is safe,” Robinson told The Arab Weekly in an interview as she was leaving her hotel for the Jordan River where, tradition says, Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist.
However, she acknowledged that she “did some research and watched the news to make sure that no trouble is brewing in the vicinity when we arrive here”.
As hotels remain mostly empty, Jordan Hotels Association Director Yasar Majali said the tourism sector is suffering mainly from the misunderstanding of the situation in Jordan due to the conflicts in neighbouring countries.
As a result of the dwindling business, some hotels laid off staff and others shut down, Majali said. Occupancy rate at hotels dropped 40% in the first five months of this year, compared with the same period in 2014. “The situation is alarming,” he said.
He partly blamed Jordan’s tourism woes on the international media, saying “imbalanced coverage” of the region scared off sightseers.
As a way out, Majali said attracting tourists from the Gulf “is important to boost tourism this year”.
Economist Hosam Ayesh said focusing on Gulf states may help for now but he emphasised that there is a need for a long-term strategy to prevent further losses and restore the glory of the tourism sector, which contributes about 13% to Jordan’s economy annually.
“The current promotional campaigns for tourism in Jordan are insufficient and ineffective,” he said. “There is a need to target new markets.”
The government needs to make the sector more competitive when compared to other destinations in the region, he said, adding that hotel rooms in Jordan stand at 26,000 compared with more than 50,000 only in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.