Jordanians celebrate Ramadan with 1.4 million refugees
AMMAN - Jordanian officials predicted an unprecedented flow of tourists from Gulf Arab states this summer, taking advantage of the country’s relative stability in the volatile Middle East but with an added value this time: Celebrating the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan with family and friends in Jordan.
Jordan has geared up preparations for the month of day-long fasts, with decorations of coloured lights splashing the streets, coffee shops, restaurants and private offices. Street kiosks were set up across the country to sell lanterns and flashing lights.
The upbeat mood, however, masks the economic hardship of hosting an estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees and thousands of Iraqis and Yemenis who have fled wars and violence in their countries.
The refugees have depleted Jordan’s meagre resources, such as water, electricity and services, as well as health care and education. More significantly, Jordan’s economy is almost bankrupt. Borrowing has reached an unprecedented 86.3% of gross domestic product.
“People are trying to forget the miseries of war, violence and displacement of people around them to celebrate the holy month in peace and enjoy its blessings,” said butcher shop owner Bilal al-Qaisi, who pointed out that he sold a record number of poultry in a week in late May.
Traditional destinations Egypt and Lebanon are struggling to revive their tourism sectors, which have been hurt by civil wars and violence in Iraq and Syria.
Lebanon’s soured ties with Saudi Arabia risk another drop in tourism from the Gulf, which plunged 40% in 2015.
Egypt’s once-popular Sharm el- Sheikh resort resembles a ghost town since the bombing of a Russian jet last October that killed all 224 passengers on board.
Sobhi Saqr, 44, a Jordanian formerly manager of a Sharm hotel who was laid off due to lost business, said it was “sad to see Sharm barren of tourists”.
“Many hotels closed or are going to close due to lack of business, which puts thousands of employees and their families in a dilemma of where to go and how to feed their children,” Saqr said.
According to Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, 346,500 tourists visited Egypt in February 2016 compared with 640,200 in the same period of 2015, a drop of 46%.
Amman has also felt the pinch. The number of tourists to Jordan from the Gulf region dropped 11% to 612,000 in 2015, compared with 689,000 in 2014, according to the Tourism Ministry.
Tour operators insist there is hope that Jordan may have more tourists this year due to the closures in other destinations, partly plugging a $500 million loss in tourism income.
“Despite all the troubles in our neighbourhood, we expect some of the tourists who are used to going to Lebanon and Egypt to come to Jordan this year,” said tour operator Mahmoud Daas. He said his travel agency was receiving more booking requests from Russians and Gulf Arabs, which is about 30% above the average.
Amman coffee shop owner Ala Shaban, 35, said “a lot of hope is pinned on this summer and Ramadan”.
“We have high hopes that business activity will shore up, especially that Ramadan is starting at the beginning of the summer, right at the start of schools’ summer break,” said Shaban.
The Jordanian Central Traffic Department said it expects more than 600,000 vehicles to enter the kingdom during the summer of 2016, compared with 450,000 vehicles in 2015.
Malls and supermarkets have stocked up foodstuffs with special corners dedicated to Ramadan’s traditional delicacies and sweets.
“We’re happy to see that most places are making us feel the coming of Ramadan. Everything is available, but we hope that the prices will remain unchanged,” Haitham Awadat, 45, said while shopping at one of the biggest hypermarkets in Amman.
The Jordanian Ministry of Agriculture vowed that food supply will be enough to satisfy a greater demand during Ramadan, when banquets are lush with all kinds of food. It pointed out that Ramadan coincides with the peak harvest of many fruits and vegetables.
At least $494 million was spent on food in Jordan during Ramadan in 2015, which is about 30% less than average spending in previous years, according to the Foodstuff Traders Association.