Jordan’s unusual and smallest hotel – a Volkswagen Beetle
AL JAYA - Driving along the curvy road towards Shobak Castle between Amman and the red rose city of Petra, there is a glimpse of an old white Volkswagen Beetle on the roadside. There, a man wearing a traditional Jordanian keffiyeh welcomes visitors to the world’s “smallest hotel.”
The “smallest hotel,” as owner Mohammed Malaheem claims, consists of a mattress with colourful embroidered pillows arranged inside the battered VW Beetle.
Explaining how the idea of this unusual accommodation came about, Malaheem said: “After retiring in 1990, I decided to start a business in tourism to promote my small village, Jaya, which was becoming a ghost town as many residents have been deserting it in search for a better life. I first installed a small tent for tourists visiting Shobak Castle where they can have water, coffee and shop for handmade products.”
As his small business attracted more visitors, Malaheem, 64, decided to expand. He used a loan from the Ministry of Social Development to turn a small cave on the side of the road into a “hotel lobby” and adapted his old VW Beetle, which he refurbished, to serve as a sleeping space.
“It worked!” Malaheem said. “Tourists loved the idea and asked if I had plans to add more cars which I am thinking of doing but of course I need financial support.”
After removing the engine and the car’s interior, the repurposed vehicle was decorated with handmade embroidered sheets and pillows with traditional patterns, embellished with colourful beads.
Malaheem said tourists can enjoy “the luxury of the smallest hotel in the world” for $56 per night, including breakfast and lunch.
“For any tourist who likes the adventure and something different, I think I can easily say that the Beetle provides some kind of a luxury mixed with originality; food is home-made and it is traditional food made by my wife and daughter,” he said.
Approximately 200 tourists have stayed at least one night at the so-called world’s smallest hotel and an early reservation is recommended, Malaheem said.
“Of course, they have to reserve early as you can see the room fits only two people and there is only one room, or in this case one car, transformed into a hotel,” he said.
Malaheem’s guests are mostly visitors to the nearby Shobak Castle, an imposing early 12th-century Crusader fortification perched on the side of a rocky, narrow mountain 1,300 metres above sea level.
His cave is called the “Baldwin Grotto.” He named it after Baldwin I of Jerusalem, who built Shobak Castle in 1115. It was originally called “Krak de Montreal” or “Mons Regalis.” About 6,000 people resided in the castle in its glory days. It was attacked several times by Saladin until its defenders surrendered in 1189 after a 2-year siege. The Mamluks restored the castle in the 14th century.
Around 9,000 visitors, including more than 6,000 foreign tourists, visited Shobak Castle from January-June last year, compared to some 5,000 tourists, including about 3,000 foreigners, in the same period in 2016, the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism said.
What does it take to have such a successful venture with a minimum investment?
“It is not rocket science but a combination of big smiles, a unique idea and welcoming attitude,” Malaheem said. “Tourism is the backbone of this country so we need to take care of this sector. Nothing can beat staying close to nature with a great view of the Castle and surrounded by the desert.”
Murad Ghsoun, owner of travel agency Skygate in Amman, believes that such innovative ideas could have positive effect on tourism.
“Tourism in general needs new ideas and having the smallest hotel in the world made out of one old car is really a great and genuine idea and so far it is doing what is intended from it and that is attracting more tourists,” he said.
“Having a good personal experience in a destination would eventually increase the number of tourists in that destination, and this is what happened to Shobak area, whereas taking advantage of tourists, such as charging $85 for a watermelon, is definitely a bad marketing point,” Ghsoun added, referring to an incident involving Pakistani tourists in Petra last year.
Malaheem’s business depends largely on foreign tourists who stay for one night despite having reservations elsewhere or in Amman. The attraction and uniqueness of the hotel makes it on the bucket list of many who hear about it.
“It is a simple enjoyment to try something new. I am not saying that my small hotel is the best but I can say it somehow does the job. I am helping my country’s tourism with such unique ideas,” Malaheem said.
Of course, the question that is on every tourist’s mind. “Yes, there is a toilet,” he added with a smile.