Jordan Cashes In

By Luxner, Larry | The Middle East, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Jordan Cashes In


Luxner, Larry, The Middle East


Jordan's efforts to boost its earnings from tourism in 2000 are already paying off Larry Luxner reports from Amman on the country's millennium initiative and the international companies who are investing millions of dollars in the tourism sector.

Of all the pilgrims expected to flock to Jordan during 2000, the most important -- at least in terms of marketing -- will be Pope John Paul II, who is scheduled to pay an official visit from 20-21 March, then continue on to Israel for another four days. "Since we started planning for the millennium, it was our intention to add Biblical sites to our product, and use 2000 as a launching pad," said Marwan Khoury, managing director of the Jordan Tourism Board. "This is what adds flavour to the Jordanian product."

Among Jordan's most important Biblical sites are Bethany, the site along the River Jordan where John is said to have baptised Jesus Christ; Madaba, home of an ancient Byzantine mosaic map of the Middle East dating from 540 AD and Mount Nebo, where Moses supposedly died after viewing the Promised Land. According to the Vatican, the Pope will visit all three sites as part of his long-awaited jubilee tour. Jordanian tourism officials hope his visit will encourage millions more Christians to follow in his footsteps -- with dollars.

Last year, 1.35 million tourists came to Jordan, a number expected to reach 1.5 million this year. The largest contingent comes from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, followed by Israel, which sent 125,000 tourists in 1999. Interestingly, about 75 per cent of these were Israeli Arabs or Palestinians on family visits, though Khoury says he wants to target Israeli Jewish tourists, who generally have more money to spend and are more likely to stay in hotels.

"The Israelis only know Petra. They don't know about anything else we have to offer," he says. "We need to do promotional work in their own language, Hebrew. We have an embassy in Israel, but we cannot rely on embassies. We are therefore considering appointing a public relations representative in Tel Aviv, though that probably won't happen this year." Already, droves of Hebrew-speaking Israeli tourists on day trips can be seen swarming through Petra -- a fabulous ancient Nabatean city that was off-limits to Israelis until the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994. Menorahs and Hebrew language guide books cram the shelves of Petra souvenir shops, and along the desert highway, signs now point the way to Eilat, an Israeli port city just across the Red Sea from Aqaba.

As lucrative as Israeli tourist traffic is, it is the Americans Khoury really wants to lure to Jordan -- and not just for two or three days as is currently the case. "Our main concern is to increase the average length of stay of Americans," he says, noting that about $1 million of the Jordan Tourism Board's $6 million budget is devoted to marketing and promotional efforts in the United States, which sent 105,000 tourists to Jordan last year. That number is likely to increase significantly in 2000, despite an unprecedented State Department warning issued last December in the wake of terrorist threats.

"This perception of Jordan is completely wrong. Americans think it is not safe," says Lawrence Steeman, executive assistant manager of the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman. "The US Embassy says there is a safety concern here. But then I ask myself, if a synagogue in Brussels is bombed, does a similar letter go out saying Belgium is unsafe? …

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