Tourism in Jordan: Rolling out the welcome mat

Jordan is spending billions of dollars building infrastructure and luxury hotels to lure tourists to the country
Tourism in Jordan: Rolling out the welcome mat
The ancient city of Petra is perhaps the regions biggest tourist draw
By Claire Valdini
Sun 24 Feb 2013 08:39 AM

Nestled up high in the hills above one of Jordan’s most famous archaeological sites, Petra, sits the Petra Marriott Hotel. Offering incredible views across the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the newly refurbished hotel represents a microcosm of Jordan’s growing investment in the luxury travel market.

“There is a very strong relationship with all of the parties involved in tourism initiatives across Jordan. We do trade shows [in collaboration with the government] and we combine strategies. At the end of the day we share the same vision and that is to boost the number of tourists to the country,” Zovinar Mananian, director of operators for the hotel tells Arabian Business.

This type of relationship is helping to shape Jordan’s local tourism industry. Home to some of the region’s best known attractions, including the Dead Sea, the River Jordan and the ancient ruins in Jerash, the country is ramping up its investment in its hospitality industry and luxury travellers from higher-income brackets seeking five-star resorts and cultured tourist attractions are the name of the game.

In addition to its $2m upgrade in Petra, Marriott International will open a 264-room JW Marriott Hotel Aqaba later this year while Starwood will open its first St Regis hotel in Amman in 2015 and a 280-room W Amman Hotel in late 2015.

But hotels are just one part of the story. Across the country, from Aqaba in the south to Amman in the north east, Jordan is ploughing investment into a sector that accounts for around 7.7 percent of its overall gross domestic product and employs almost 17 percent of its national workforce.

“The health of Jordan’s tourist sector is central to the economy’s overall well-being. It is the second largest employer, and, although difficult to measure precisely, we estimate that tourism constitutes some 9-10 percent of gross domestic product,” says Robert Powell, senior editor and economist for MENA at Economist Intelligence Unit.

Three years ago the Ministry of Tourism released its five-year strategic plan,which aims to boost the number of foreign tourists from 8.2 million to 9.4 million by 2015. Some of the biggest financial commitments include its $30m two-stage Jordan Tourism Development Project, which aims to promote the country as an international tourism hotspot by upgrading and preserving key archaeological sites such as Petra and promoting private sector investment.

A further $20m is being pumped into Aqaba, where a low tax, duty-free development area has boosted investment opportunities for a range of leisure attractions including golf courses and resorts. The city will also house the country’s first theme park, the $1bn Red Sea Astrarium resort, which will include a Paramount-produced Star Trek-themed attraction as well as a series of other attractions that will feature Jordan’s Nabataean, Babylonian, British and Roman influences.

“In most tourist destinations in Jordan there is nothing to do after 6pm. You can go to the beach in Aqaba but what do you do at night? There is a gap. We didn’t want to bring Micky Mouse and put him in a robe or a headscarf and say ‘now he’s a regional character’….we wanted it to be something that people from the Gulf and the Arab world can have something they relate to,” says Randa Ayoubi, founder of Rubicon Holding, the Amman-based entertainment company that is designing and project managing the park.

It’s not just attractions and luxury hotels that are seeing a major overhaul; Jordan’s transport system is receiving some much needed investment. Airport International Group (AIG), a consortium of investors including Kuwait’s Noor Financial Investment Company, is spending up to $850m in the country’s Queen Alia International Airport, which will eventually boost capacity to twelve million passengers.

Official visitor numbers for last year would indicate that Jordan’s plans have so far been well-received. The country’s tourism sector generated $3.5bn in 2012, a 15.3 percent increase compared to the previous year as the number of Gulf Arab tourists increased, according to data from the Central Bank of Jordan. Income generated from Gulf visitors increased 15.7 percent while other Arab countries helped boost income by 47.1 percent, it added.

“While we’ve seen a decline in tourists from Europe due to the economic situation, there has been a rise in the number of visitors from the Gulf, Latin America and the Middle East so it’s balanced the decline,” says Mananian.

While the increase is evident, it is important to note that the rise came from a low base, says Powell. “The tourism sector in Jordan has had a relatively strong recovery in 2012, with tourism receipts rising by 17.5 percent in the first three quarters of 2012 compared to the same period in 2011.

“However, it is important to note that this merely sees tourism revenue return to the levels seen in 2010. The sector was badly hit during the Arab Spring, as foreigners, especially from the EU and US, stayed away,” he added.

While Jordan has largely avoided the street unrest that has swept across the region in the last two years, the geopolitical situation of the countries that surround it will continue to have a large influence. Despite a rise in tourist revenues last year, the country witnessed a 6 percent decline in the number of visitors for the first seven months of the year, dipping from just over four million in the first six months of 2011 to 3.7 million for the same period in 2012, according to official data.

The government’s weak finances may too impact its investment plans looking ahead. A higher welfare spending package to buy social peace during the Arab Spring and the cost of caring for refugees from Syria forced the country to launch an austerity drive in May last year, raising fuel and electricity prices as well as imposing higher taxes on luxury goods and corporate taxes on banks and mining companies.

“The government has various [spending] plans to expand the sector including the capacity of Queen Alia International airport and a host of new hotels, especially in Aqaba in the south, are under construction. However, as always, Jordan's economic progress is at the mercy of regional developments: with some 225,000 Syrian refugees in the country, there is a risk that the country could be destabilised by the war over its border,” notes Powell.

Factors beyond Jordan’s control aside, the country’s tourist industry looks set to flourish in the wake of its increased investment.

Other big-ticket tourism draws in the region

Palmyra, Syria

Palmyra is one of Syria’s most famous tourist destinations. The ancient city was a vital stop for travellers crossing the Syrian desert. Its earliest documented reference was by the Semitic name Tadmor, which means “the town that repels” in Amorite, and is recorded in Babylonian tablets found in Mari (modern Tell Hariri). Though the site fell into disuse after the 16th century, it is still known as Tadmor in Arabic. Today, its most striking featured is the huge temple of Ba’al, which is considered one of the most important religious buildings of the 1st century AD in the Middle East.

Madain Saleh, Saudi Arabia

The only World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia is set to throw its doors to the international public for the first time this year. Dating back to the Nabataean civilization, the site is considered one of the kingdom’s most important archaeological sites. Access to the area has been largely banned since the Al Saud family took full control of the country in 1932 in strict obedience to an order given by Prophet Mohammed that no one should enter the city except those weeping and fasting because of the tragic fate of those that lived there. The Saudi tourism authorities announced in December it would open the area to the public and allow tourists to visit the site.

Byblos, Lebanon

The city of Byblos is believed to the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world. The ancient town was once a powerful independent state with its own kings, culture and flourishing trade and is today one of Lebanon’s most popular tourist destinations. Tourists can visit the old harbour and visit the nearby excavated remains of the ancient city, the Crusader castle and church and the old market area.

Leptis Magna, Libya

North Africa’s best-preserved city of the Roman era served as a gateway to Africa from Rome. Originally a Berber settlement and later a Phoenician trading point, Leptis Magna became part of the Roman Empire in 111 BC. Today, the 2,100 year-old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is renowned for some of the finest Roman ruins in existence today, including Hadrian's Baths, the Palaestra and the 16,000 seat amphitheatre.

Haram Al Sharif, Jerusalem

Haram Al Sharif, also known as The Noble Sanctuary, is situated at the heart of Jerusalem. The mosque is one of the three most important sites in Islam, and a showcase for Islamic architecture and design from Umayyad to Ottoman times that continues as an important religious and educational centre for Muslims to the present day. The Muslim community of Jerusalem has managed the site since the Crusades but archaeological digs on the site continue to be politically controversial.

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