Jordan makes a comeback

After the 2005 terrorism attacks, Jordan dropped off the radar for many travellers, but recent investment in the country heralds the rebirth of one of the world's most awe-inspiring destinations.
Jordan makes a comeback
By Administrator
Thu 10 Jan 2008 01:29 PM

When, on November 9, 2005, a series of Al-Qaeda linked bomb attacks devastated the Grand Hyatt, Radisson SAS and Days Inn hotels in Amman, killing 60 people and injuring more than one hundred, the world recoiled in shock and Jordan's travel industry looked doomed.

To make matters worse, the conflict in neighbouring Lebanon in 2006 impacted the Levant region as a whole and hotel occupancy in Amman fell to 58%, down from 70% in 2005, according to HVS International's recent Jordan - Country Snapshot 2007 report.

The booking demand for Amman so far has been fantastic. We have taken literally thousands of bookings both through our website and through travel agents.

But it would seem that you can't keep a great destination down, and the next two years saw the country dust itself off and get on with the job of rebuilding and remarketing. In fact, arrival figures to the country have been steadily increasing since 2006.

Currently, more than half of travellers to Jordan are from other Middle East countries, with the remainder coming from Europe, the US and now Japan. Most of this is business traffic, but the Jordanian Tourist Board (JTB) is now making a real push to lure more leisure travellers, promoting the wealth of attractions the region has to offer.

"In the language of numbers, we witnessed a 38% rise in the number of European tourists visiting Jordan in the first 10 months of 2007. We have also noticed the visitor patterns from Europe have begun to change, extending to longer periods in what is known as the ‘European season' explains JTB communications manager Tohama Nabulsi.

"Jordan is not trying to reposition itself as a safe destination - Jordan is a safe destination. The rising growth of international tourists coming to see its marvels is testament to their confidence in the safety and stability of the country."

Gerhard Stutz, general manager at the Four Seasons Hotel Amman, also believes that the tide is starting to turn in Jordan's favour.

"I think we have started the transition to change. I've recently been in the UK and Europe and from talking to the press and the industry I got the idea that we are starting to build people's confidence in Jordan again," he says.

"We just need to change perceptions of Jordan as an unsafe destination. It is part of the Middle East and is surrounded by countries that do have some turmoil. But Jordan is stable - we have to go out and persuade people of that. Plus, the Jordanian people are extremely nice, helpful and friendly."

Ever-expanding Amman

Amman is the modern, as well as the ancient, capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and has a population of around two million. Located in the north-west, it spans an area of 19 hills each known as a ‘jabal'. The country's long and sometimes tumultuous history has seen it inhabited by several civilisations, notably the Nabateans.

The city is currently experiencing rapid growth - including the expansion of Queen Alia International Airport, the home of flag carrier Royal Jordanian Airlines - which is reshaping this ancient city into a commercial hub.

It was announced recently that as a oneworld member, Royal Jordanian will be the first airline in the Middle East to provide its passengers with OnAir's in-flight internet and mobile phone services, including email, SMS and voice calls.

Royal Jordanian president and CEO Samer Majali emphasises the importance the Amman-based airline is placing on looking to the future and being innovative.

"2007 has been a very good year for Royal Jordanian. We became the first Arab carrier to join oneworld - one of the world's major airline alliances - we won several awards and to top if off we are introducing this pioneering new service," he explains.

Although Royal Jordanian offers the most intra-regional services to Amman, the competition is hotting up with KSA-based low cost carrier (LCC) Sama starting a charter service to Amman in December. The flights are currently operating three times per week departing from King Fahad International Airport in Dammam and King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh.

"Amman shall be our first destination outside the GCC. We have chosen it in response to market demand and to serve the travellers and residents in the kingdom, as well as contributing to increased travel movement for business, family visits, or holidays," explains Sama CEO Andrew Cowen.

"The decision to go into Jordan has been ratified by the open skies initiative that has been embraced by the Jordan Government. Certainly in Saudi Arabia there are a significant number of people with a Jordanian or Syrian background who live there and want to travel back to their respective countries regularly.

"Until now they have been restricted in terms of capacity and relatively high fares. The booking demand for Amman so far has been fantastic. We have taken literally thousands of bookings both through our website and through travel agents - it's proving quite a success."

The Dead Sea

One of the main reasons Jordan is back on the radar is that it is the location for some of the most spectacular natural and man-made sites in the region - particularly The Dead Sea on the eastern coast.

The leading attraction at the Dead Sea is the warm seawater, which is several times saltier than normal and is rich in magnesium, sodium, potassium and bromine.

Called ‘Dead' because the unusually high salt content means no fish or water plants can live in it - its shores are the lowest point on Earth. The high salt content also means bathers can float effortlessly on their backs while soaking up the water's healthy minerals - a pastime long believed to have curative qualities.

Several of the Dead Sea resorts are becoming renowned for their high standards - such as the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar, which has only been open for 18 months and has already won the ‘Ultimate Escape' category in Bespoke luxury magazine's annual awards.

The hotel's general manager and Kempinski regional director, Duncan O'Rourke, attributes the win to the uniqueness of the Dead Sea as a destination.

"We have worked incredibly hard to create a superior holiday experience for guests by providing an escape from the every day world into the almost mystical reality of the Dead Sea...steeped in the history of ancient Babylon and with distinctive architecture," he says.

The sales pitchGetting there:Air Arabia:from Sharjah daily.
Emirates:from Dubai, 10 flights weekly.
Etihad:from Abu Dhabi daily.
Gulf Air:from Bahrain, 11 weekly.
Jazeera Airways:from Kuwait, five weekly.
KuwaitAirways:from Kuwait City, three weekly.
Middle East Airlines:from Beirut, once weekly.
OmanAir:from Muscat, twice weekly.
QatarAirways:from Doha, daily.
Royal Jordanian:flies from Amman to Abu Dhabi (one weekly); Aleppo (six weekly); Alexandria (three weekly ); Bahrain (11 weekly); Basra (three weekly); Beirut (17 weekly); Cairo (13 weekly); Damascus (one weekly); Dammam (four weekly); Doha (four weekly); Dubai (nine weekly); Erbil (four weekly); Jeddah (two weekly); Kuwait (three weekly); Riyadh (two weekly); Sanaa (three weekly); Sharm El Sheikh (five weekly).
Sama:from Riyadh and Dammam - three times weekly.
Saudia:from Jeddah, daily; from Riyadh, daily.
Yemenia:from Sanaa, three times weekly.

Currency:

JOD 1 = US $1.42

Visas:

Any non-Arab visitor to Jordan needs an entry visa. Tourist visas allow a stay of up to one month initially but this period can be easily extended for another two months. After that date you must exit and re-enter the country, or undergo immigration procedures. If your visa has not been renewed properly by the time you leave Jordan you will have to pay a fine at the border. If you plan to stay for more than two weeks in Jordan, you will need to register at the nearest police station. Visit: www.visitjordan.com

Packages:

Etihad Holidays:prices for three nights at the Amman Marriott Hotel on a bed-and-breakfast basis are priced from AED 2130 (US $580) and include return Coral Zone airfare and private transfers.

Alpha Tours:prices for a three-day (two-night) package at the five-star Radisson SAS hotel in Amman lead in at AED 1520 ($414) per person plus airfare. Day 1: half-day city tour of Amman and a visit to Jerash. Day 2: visit Petra, including an 800-metre horse ride. Day 3: transfer to the Dead Sea Spa for swimming before flying home.

Next-door neighbour, the Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea is also enjoying great popularity and features the ZARA Spa - one of the largest and most advanced spa operations in the Middle East and unique in Jordan.

The Dead Sea strip is fast becoming a spa destination in its own right with world-renowned spa resort operator, the Banyan Tree Group, building its first Jordanian property under its Angsana brand, which is slated for completion in 2011.

Petranamed ‘new wonder'

On par with The Dead Sea in terms of pulling power, Jordan's other top location is the archaeological site of Petra in the southwest, which, to the delight of the JTB, was recently voted one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

Sometimes called ‘The Lost City', Petra is a vast metropolis that was carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans more than 2000 years ago.

Our efforts are now focusing on shaking off this negative image and on severing the link between regional turbulence and Jordan’s geographical position.

The entrance to the city is through the Siq, a narrow gorge more than 1km in length flanked on either side by soaring cliffs. As you reach the end you come to a huge façade called the Al-Khazneh (Treasury) hewn out of the dusky pink rock.

It was carved in the early 1st Century and is remembered by many as featuring in final sequence of the blockbuster movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Nizar Steiteh, executive director of Amman-based in-bound tourist agency Atlas Travel is certain that Petra's new status has increased business.

"We have really noticed that Petra is more popular now because it's one of the Seven Wonders - people keep mentioning it when they book," he says. "We get a lot of foreign ex-pats from the Middle East wanting six- to eight-day tours where they can see Petra and all the other main sights. Sometimes they don't have a lot of time so they just want to make sure they fit in the highlights of Jordan."

Religious pilgrims

For travellers undertaking a religious pilgrimage, Jordan has long been an important stop on the map. The region has many sites referred to in crucial sections of both the Qu'ran and the Bible.

Recent years have seen these sites identified, excavated and protected, and are now more easily accessible to visitors.

Jordan is the ideal destination to sell to travellers seeking to boost their cultural knowledge and spiritual enrichment and indeed the country has made a virtue of valuing its religiously diverse population.

Selling Jordan

When selling Jordan as a destination, agents should always consider booking good quality airport transfers.

The key issues are good service, security (particularly for those clients visiting Jordan for the first time) as well as ensuring that taxi drivers speak English, as well as Arabic.

Always check on the visa requirements of the traveller -many nationalities can obtain the visa on arrival, but others can't, so warn your clients in advance.

Travel agents seeking more information on visa requirements for their clients should visit: www.visitjordan.com

Agents should ensure that they work with a reputable ground handler and that clients have access to a 24-hour emergency assist number that actually works. Make sure that you don't oversell the hotels - the standards are quite high in Jordan - but you must be sure that you are selling the right property to the right client.

Try and add value to the client's experience by making tour and sightseeing suggestions.

No trip to Jordan is complete without a visit to a couple of the major sites. In addition, Aqaba is a great beach and diving resort and Wadi Mujib Reserve is ideal for the more energetic clients who fancy hiking.

The future

Jordan's problem has been one of association. Its location in the heart of a turbulent Middle East is probably the only real threat to its ability to compete on the world stage.

"Our efforts are now focusing on shaking off this negative image and on severing the link between regional turbulence and Jordan's geographical position," says Nabulsi.

"We are working hard to increase awareness in the industry and the media to highlight a true, safe and exciting Jordan experience. We continue to bring agents to the area so they can get a first hand look at what we have to offer and experience the true feeling of a Jordan vacation."

Jordan may have been through some tough times, but it simply has too much historical, cultural and natural importance to stay down for long.

How to sell JordanAdventure travellers

There are some great packages around for clients who want to test themselves in the demanding Jordan terrain. A good example is Mountain High's action-packed six-day ‘Jewels of Arabia' tour that includes trekking and team-building activities in Aqaba, ancient Petra and The Dead Sea. Note: this package requires a decent level of fitness.

Prices start from AED 7950 (US $2165) per person on a twin share basis. Visit www.mountainhighme.com.

Families

Most of the big hotels in the main resorts offer plenty of activities for the whole family. For example, Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea has Kids Land, tennis courts, a games room and a swimming pool on site, plus organised nature trails are also popular.

Honeymooners/Couples

A luxury break at any of the top Dead Sea spa resorts combined with a few days visiting the main sights would be perfect couples seeking relaxation, sunsets and stunning scenery.

Wellness/spa seekers

Selling the health aspect of a visit to Jordan couldn't be easier. There are a range of top-notch resorts making the most of the Dead Sea's reputation for restoring well-being. Mövenpick's Zara Spa and the Jordan Valley Marriott Resort & Spa are amongst the best. Kempinski has also spearheaded a resort development in Jordan, adding a vast 10,000m² Anantara spa to its Ishtar Dead Sea resort early this year. It boasts 20 treatment rooms, 28 spa suites, ice cave, Watsu pools and outdoor therapy lounges.

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