Camel tourist trade dries up after revolts

Suleiman Mansour says this has been his most frustrating year renting out camels to tourists.. Regional instability is taking its toll on Mr Mansour and others in Jordan's tourism industry.

A camel owner in south Jordan waits for tourists to come for a riding tour to Petra, where tourism is down due to regional instability.
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Wadi Musa, Jordan // Suleiman Mansour says this has been his most frustrating year renting out camels to tourists.

"Tourism is so bad. This is the worst time ever," said Mr Mansour, 37. "There is no work. There is nothing to do. I've been here since six in the morning hoping to rent my camel, but I haven't earned a single penny."

Regional instability is taking its toll on Mr Mansour and others in Jordan's tourism industry, which makes up 14 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. The number of visitors to Jordan dropped by 14.2 per cent during the first half of this year, from 3.639 million last year to 3.124m, official figures showed.

The revolts that have toppled the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt and spread to Libya, Yemen and Syria are making many would-be tourists reluctant to visit the region. In Jordan the protest movement that sprang up in January has been generally peaceful, but violence flared at at least three demonstrations, including the police beating of protesters and journalists last month in Amman.

"Tourists are scared to come to the region, but those who come here discover that it is safe. Tourists are also treated well here," said Walid Tweisi, who provides wagon rides for tourists. "But there is hardly any business . . . I can hardly feed the horses, let alone make money for myself."

At Petra, Jordan's prized tourist destination, visitor numbers have dropped by nearly 29 per cent during the first six months of this year, from 493,397 to 350,645, according to ministry of tourism figures.

Petra was remarkably quiet on Monday. Child vendors tried to sell post cards as camels were lying idly by, their owners waiting for tourists to rent them to. Twelve carriages lined up close to The Treasury, a famous monument carved in the early 1st century as the tomb of a Nabataean king, where tourists usually pause for pictures. But only three carriages were occupied. One Bedouin shouted: "Take a horse. Life is too short," as he tried to convince passersby that it was not worth the walk to the entrance gate in the noon heat.

"Tourism is suffering. We had difficult times during the war on Iraq but business has never reached zero level as it did now," said Mohammad Audeh, who sells souvenirs and silver accessories. "I cannot pay back my debts, and I am worried the situation will get worse," the father of seven said.

Most tourists visiting Jordan usually come on combined tours to the Holy Land or tour packages that also include Egypt and Syria.

"But they stopped coming," said Samer Sawalha, the general manager of Space Tours, a travel agency based in Amman. "We always had inquiries about tourist packages but they ceased once the problems began in Egypt and Syria … with not less than 50 per cent cancellations in the past few months.

"When it comes to Arab tourists, Petra is usually not part of their itinerary. Without European tourists, there is no tourism in Jordan," Mr Sawalha said.

European tourists to Jordan who generally make up more than 20 per cent of the market share, according to the Jordan tourism board, dropped by 11.6 per cent, from 349,039 to 308,705 in the January to June period.

For now, Jordan is hoping to convince Arab tourists to spend at least part of Ramadan here. With the ongoing protests in Syria across the border, tourism numbers in Jordan have picked up. Haifa Abu Ghazaleh, the tourism minister was quoted on the government news agency, Petra, on Wednesday as saying that the number of Saudi arrivals to Jordan in the past month was "unprecedented" and that it had increased by 20 per cent.

In order to encourage Arab nationals to visit Petra, the government treats them as Jordanians when it comes to the entry fee during the summer, where they pay one dinar instead of 50 (Dh260).

Tohama Nabulsi, the director of the media and communications department at that tourist bureau, said: "We also continue to extend invitations to media representatives from the Gulf to visit Jordan. We have cultural nights and musical festivals in Amman and Jerash", an ancient Roman city. "Both cultures have so much in common. We are counting on them."