Tourism in ancient Petra hit by Jordan’s war on terror

Video of the Jordanian pilot burnt to death by ISIL led to a surge in cancellations of hotel bookings in Jordan.
Jordanian royal desert forces stand guard in front of Al Khazneh, Arabic for the Treasury in the ancient city of Petra, Jordan. Tourism in Petra has taken a hit no thanks to regional turbulence and Jordan's high-profile role in the battle against ISIL. Raad Adayleh/AP Photo
Jordanian royal desert forces stand guard in front of Al Khazneh, Arabic for the Treasury in the ancient city of Petra, Jordan. Tourism in Petra has taken a hit no thanks to regional turbulence and Jordan's high-profile role in the battle against ISIL. Raad Adayleh/AP Photo

PETRA, JORDAN // It’s high season in Petra, an ancient city hewn from rose-coloured rock and Jordan’s biggest tourist draw.

Yet nearby hotels stand virtually empty and only a trickle of tourists make their way through the slot canyon to the Treasury building where scenes of one of the Indiana Jones movies were filmed.

Petra’s slump is part of a sharp decline in tourism as Jordan’s economy pays the price for regional turbulence and its high-profile role in the US-led battle against ISIL militants next door.

Jordan’s involvement in the anti-ISIL coalition drew worldwide attention earlier this year, when it stepped up airstrikes against targets in Syria after the militants burned to death a Jordanian fighter pilot in a cage.

With the harrowing images, war seemed to come closer and tourism suffered.

Video of the pilot’s immolation, released by the militants in February, led to a surge in cancellations of hotel bookings in Jordan, tourism officials said.

The tourism industry is now trying to lure visitors with price cuts, including waiving some airport fees. But a quick recovery appears doubtful as neighbouring Syria and Iraq sink deeper into violence and ISIL militants continue to control large areas of both countries.

“We are not optimistic for 2015,” said Ahmad Amarat, manager of the 95-room Kings’ Way Hotel near Petra, which closed four months ago after occupancy rate fell to 28 per cent in 2014, from 95 per cent in 2010.

Tourism problems are just one of many challenges Jordan’s economy has faced since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

“The instability in the region affected the economic indicators, mainly tourism, as well as foreign direct investment,” said government spokesman Mohammed Al Momani. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year, have strained public services.

Before the Arab Spring, Jordan’s tourism industry was going strong, with 8.2 million visitors in 2010. By 2013, that number had dropped to 5.4 million, according to the World Bank.

The slump threatens thousands of tourism jobs, a loss Jordan can ill afford. The official unemployment rate is close to 12 per cent, though actual joblessness is believed to much higher, especially among young Jordanians, creating fertile ground for extremism.

In Petra, a Unesco World Heritage site, the number of annual visitors dropped from 800,000 in 2010 to 400,000 last year, said the Jordan Hotel Association.

About half of the visitors currently come for day trips, rather than stay overnight.

Hussam Hamadeen, a 37-year-old father of three, lost his job after the Kings’ Way Hotel closed. He could not find work in two other tourist areas – the capital, Amman and in the Red Sea port of Aqaba, and now stays home. “Everyone here is doing the same, and we don’t know what will happen in a few months when we run out of money,” he said.

Some of the travellers said living in the region helped put security concerns into perspective.

“Sometimes it seems things are getting more hyped up. I am not scared to be in Jordan, and I am not scared to be in Saudi either,” said American teacher Tracy Redding who works in Saudi Arabia.

Noor Muqadam, an Indian working in Dubai, said he had booked a Petra trip in January, before the video of the immolation of the Jordanian pilot emerged. When he got worried, his Jordanian colleagues assured him the country was safe.

Jordan’s government has been trying harder to bring back tourists. Fees and travel taxes at the airport in Aqaba have been waived to lure back charter flights and discount airlines, said Mr Al Majali of the hotel association.

The tourism board, meanwhile, took dozens of travel writers and bloggers on a junket this week, with Jordan’s Queen Rania welcoming the group.

But Amarat, the manager of the shuttered Kings’ Way Hotel, said a quick turnaround is unlikely.

“Let’s say what is going on in Syria stopped today and they get rid of ISIL today,” he said, standing in the deserted hotel lobby. “People will not start coming back the next month.”

* Associated Press

Published: March 30, 2015 04:00 AM

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