Jordan’s tourism dependency hits its limits

The authorities touted a tourism boom until Covid-19 crashed the party

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Driving from Amman to Jordan’s famous historic site of Petra was a dangerous escapade until the government fixed most of the tarmac in the past four years.

Encouraging tourism was a main goal behind repairing the potholes, hidden curves, sudden dips and broken pavement.

But the 4,000 to 5,000 hotel rooms in the Petra region have been mostly empty since the coronavirus struck. Jordan confirmed its first case in March last year.

“Jordan bet on tourism and lost,” said Raed Salem, an unemployed Jordanian chef who worked at a Petra hotel that closed last year.

A sharp decline in tourism since the pandemic has exposed imbalances in Jordan’s $43 billion economy.

It deepened socio-economic fissures in outlying tribal regions, traditionally a base of support for the monarchy.

Signs of economic depression abound in Wadi Musa, a valley surrounding Petra in the southern Maan governorate.

Tour guides say dozens of tourists a day come to see the ruins, compared with thousands before the pandemic.

The Nabatean city thrived on trade before surrendering to the Romans in the 2nd century AD.

Most restaurants are closed and unemployed young men sit idly on the side of Panorama Street overlooking the ruins.

The Marriott is one the few hotels still functioning. Its occupants are mostly Turkish engineers working on a nearby power project.

Mr Salem is broke and has a daughter in university. He is one of the 25 per cent of Jordanians who are officially unemployed.

He put his Toyota car up for sale to raise cash to support her. No buyers have come forward for months, although he dropped the price by a third to $4,000.

“We are finding out the hard way that tourism does not mean development,” Mr Salem said.

“The only ones left with income are bureaucrats in the agencies and departments the government had set up supposedly to promote tourism."

Visitors to Petra peaked at 1.1 million in 2019. One million of them were from outside the Arab Middle East.

Although Jordan lacks the openness and cultural links of Lebanon, instability in the Levant had boosted its image as one of the safest destinations in the region.

Only 1.2 million tourists visited Jordan last year compared with 5.4 million in 2019, according the Central Bank. The numbers include visits by Jordanians living abroad, whom the government also considers tourists - 392,000 last year and 1.5 million in 2019.

Donkey handlers are struggling to stay afloat

Tourism Minister Nayef Al Fayez expected the numbers to recover next year as world travel picked up.

“Tourism in Jordan suffered, reflecting on the economic sectors it supports,” Mr Al Fayez told a recent debate in Amman, organised by the Jordanian Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists.

He said tourism income dropped to $1.4bn last year compared with $5.7bn in 2019.

“We started to see improvement last month but we do not want to exaggerate it,” Mr Al Fayez said, declining to give figures.

With hardly any tourists in Petra, donkey operators who made money by offering rides to tired visitors lost most of their income.

So did tour guides who were two years ago inundated with demand. Across Jordan, 60 per cent of travel agencies shut down, their union said.

More people in Wadi Musa are reportedly dependent on food aid from private charities. Poverty is widely believed to be the rise, in Wadi Musa and across the country.

“I know some people in the town who have no food,” said donkey owner Juma Bedoul. “It impacts the children hardest.”

The latest official figures made public, from 2010, showed that 14.4 per cent of Jordanians lived below the official poverty line of $63 a month.

Maan governorate at that time had the highest poverty rate in the country, at 26.6 per cent.

The issue is politically sensitive.

It featured in a royal dispute that broke into the open in March, between King Abdullah and Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, his younger half-brother.

The authorities suggested that the prince sought to agitate people against the king in tribal regions hit by recession in the last two years.

Ramzi Hamdan, a retired officer from Rajeh, a town next to Wadi Musa, said he was sceptical about the boom in international visitors to Petra before the coronavirus.

“It provided jobs but most workers were hired under the table and left without rights,” Mr Hamdan said. "Tourism needs rule of law."

During a less severe dip in tourism in the past decade, notable figures from Rajeh met to find solutions, Mr Hamdan said.

They used their connections in government to pipe underground public water to the area from nearby hills to boost agriculture.

“We have had something to fall back on in this crisis,” Mr Hamdan said, pointing to olive groves in Rajeh.

The region is mostly inhabited by tribes with historical links to inner Arabia, and many in Rajeh also work for the military, giving the town weight when dealing with the state.

Saudi Arabia paid 75 per cent of the $224 million it cost to fix the desert highway, Jordanian officials said at the inauguration of the project in 2017.

During a meeting in Amman last month, Prime Minister Bisher Al Khasawneh thanked Sultan Murshid, head of the Saudi Development Fund, for the financing.

Mr Al Khasawneh said the repairs "made a positive difference in the movement of people and goods on this vital highway".

The road is still pitch dark at night. Power shortages have kept most of its lights off.

Many drivers speed and state media has not abandoned the moniker “death road” for the desert highway.

But attracting tourists back after Covid-19 will take more than improved infrastructure, operators say.

Jordan is expensive, compared with Egypt and Turkey, and taxes are high, said Kamal Abu Thiab, head of the Jordanian Association of Tourism and Travel Agents.

Random enforcement of coronavirus rules have further pressured the largely bankrupt tourism sector, he said.

“Tourists are calculating more carefully where they will go. The coronavirus has lowered their incomes,” Mr Abu Thiab told Mr Al Fayez at the debate in Amman.

“We cannot go back to the old ways.”

Updated: August 23, 2021, 11:14 AM