Right at the centre of that tinderbox called Middle East, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has managed to walk the tightrope despite recurring crises in the neighbourhood. Jordan has a long history of refugee reception: it has received Palestinians since the inception of the Arab-Israeli conflict; then, Iraqis since the 2003 US invasion; now, Syrians, vexed by more than four years of civil war. Indeed, the country’s stability is remarkable and praiseworthy.
Poor in natural resources, Jordan is a semi-rentier State. Its main revenues come from remittances and tourism. Jordan is rightly proud of its great heritage that counts sites such as Nabatean Petra – one of the new Seven Wonders of the World; the Roman town of Gerasa (today, Jerash) – one of the best preserved; the Islamic castle of Ajloun (XII century); Umm Qais, Hellenic-Roman town once known as Gadara – from where it is possible to look upon lake Tiberias and the Golan Heights. Not to mention natural wonders such the Wadi Rum, the Dead Sea and the only seaside place, Aqaba.
According to Kamal Taha, writing for ‘Middle East Eye’, in the first quarter of 2015, revenues from the tourist sector dropped by 15 percent, a loss of about $1.5 billion. In 2014, tourism accounted for 14 percent of the GDP. Petra is a case in point: in 2010, almost 1 million tourists visited the site; four years later, visitors dropped to 600,000.
In fact, walking around Amman’s congested roads, few tourists can be spotted. The tourist venue of Amman is the old town, or balad, where the amphitheatre and the citadel of ancient Philadelphia are located. There is the suq, al-Husseini mosque (rebuilt in 1924 on a VII century Ottoman mosque) and lively souvenir shops. Almost no foreigner in sight.
Close by, at the first circle, there is Rainbow Street, the crowded and animated street of Amman’s night-life. It is studded with cafes where to drink shay (tea) or smoke arghile, and bars and pubs very similar to any other capital’s ones. Here, there is plenty of foreigners. Ahmad, 26, Jordanian citizen born and raised in Baghdad, calls them ‘expats’. They are mostly students and young aid workers. They are not tourists. Ahmad told me that Jordan is the only destination left for both categories. No one goes to study Arabic in Damascus (as I did in 2011), any more, while the crises in the region – especially the Syrian refugee crisis – attracted many NGOs to the country.
Moving outside of Amman to one of the tourist sites, Jerash, desolation is what you find. I visited Jerash for the first time in 2010. Back then, it was literally packed with tourists: groups, families, backpackers… from everywhere. This time, there is just a bunch of visitors. I’m in Jerash with some friends and colleagues. We’re not tourists either. One of the guys with us is Ala’a Shaba’an, 27, Jordanian, a tourist guide. Ala’a is originally from Wadi Mousa (Petra) and belongs to a family deeply involved with the tourist industry: “Two of my uncles own tour agencies in Jordan, another one owns a Turkish bath in Petra and one of them works as tour guide, as well as my father, who stopped 5 years ago due to health issues. Obviously, that’s why I wanted to be a tour guide… in fact, I love doing it!”
“I am a general tour guide in Jordan which means that I am authorised to guide anywhere in my beloved country, and I’ve been doing this for three years.” He goes on: “before being a tour guide, I worked under several job titles as an office job in one of my uncles’ tour operator companies for 2 years and a half.”
He states that the drop in visitors began when the Arab Spring started –first with the Tunisian revolution in December 2010; then, with the Egyptian revolt in January 2011. Worries about the spread of the revolutionary wave to the whole region emerged early on. Especially, because most tours offer(ed) a combination of countries in the area: “One of the most popular itinerary that we used to handle as tour operators in Jordan was Jordan and Syria. Also, Jordan and Israel, Jordan and Egypt or a combination of three of the countries or all of them in a three weeks itinerary at least”
“I remember when the crisis started in Syria it was the worst effect, which reminded everyone who worked in tourism of what happened during the third gulf war in Iraq in 2003 – 2005.”
The high season in Jordan is between March 15 and May 20; between September 16 and November 15; and, of course, two busy weeks between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. “The tour operator company I used to work for was one of the top three in Jordan due to the number of tourists they get to the country. During 2011, we had few files to work on, sometimes less than ten files a week instead of the hundreds we expected according to all the indicators, whether from the travel exhibitions we used to participate in all over the world or from the travel agents we already knew!”
“When I decided to become a tour guide – although I studied Computer Information Systems (CIS) – I thought it would be a wise financial choice. By the end of 2012, I got my guiding licence from the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry.”
By then, recalls Ala’a, a huge drop in the numbers of visitors was already taking place and many tour operators had closed or reduced the number of employees. Others cut working days while salaries were reduced by 10 percent, at least. For example, in the last two years, 18 5-star hotels in Wadi Mousa shut down along with some hostels, their personnel became unemployed. As far as tourist guides are concerned, they are 1,700 and most of them, including Ala’a, work as freelance. The drop in visitors reduced the opportunities available to them and put many workers of the sector in a dire economic situation, especially those with families.
The tourism crisis has consequences on other sectors. In fact, it affects the entire Jordanian economy. It could be truly catastrophic at a time of great socio-political distress. Tourism revenues are badly needed, now more than ever, not only to overcome the economic crisis that has not spared Jordan (youth unemployment is currently around 30 percent), but also to make available the resources necessary to adequately provide for the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the country. “Everyone can help tourism in Jordan. It should all start from the Government: taxes should be reduced at least for the hotels because it raises the tour packages prices in an unbelievable way.” Furthermore, the tour agents, the investors, the tourists and the foreign Governments should be reassured about security in the country.
Security is indeed the main issue. Klaus Jeska, 49, German citizen, has been a tour guide for 19 years. He works for a huge company, TUI Travel, and has often worked in the Middle East: Israel, Jordan, Syria and Yemen. “Tourism is highly volatile and sensitive. Tourists catch an idea in the mass media and they construct with fragments their opinion. Clients think first about their safety. For example, they hear about the refugee camps in the north and then they think there is something wrong with the whole country.”
“In the last 15 years, I’ve been to Jordan 58 times. Last year was last one. I would go to Jordan this minute, but my customers are sceptical. Recently, I talked with a group of 20 about Jordan. Everybody was fascinated. But after a while the mood changed to ‘safer’ countries.”
Both local and foreign operators believe the real problem is disinformation. “It’s very frustrating to have such conversations [about security in Jordan] with half- informed people,” says Klaus. What is worse, disinformation concerns Government level personnel as well as ordinary people. Information is often shallow and rushed. The tourism crisis in Jordan stems from the preoccupation about the climate in the region (the Syrian civil war, the volatile and bloody endeavour of the Islamic State, the ghost of terrorism). However, those worries appear to be exaggerated and overstated, the product of gut instinct rather than rationality and, above all, the product of misinformation, as Klaus denounces.
At this time in history, with the unprecedented Syrian crisis still unfolding, supporting the Jordanian economy is paramount to provide adequate support to the Syrian refugees (in Jordan they are 600,000 on a population of around 6 million), as well as to maintain the precious stability of Jordan.