Story and photo by Clare Coughlan
As Jill Ryan and her boyfriend stroll down Rainbow Street in Amman, she holds out several Jordanian piastres so he can tell her how much each of the unfamiliar coins is worth. Today is the first of a 10-day trip to Jordan for Ryan, a 22-year-old waitress from Dublin, who is here to visit her boyfriend studying Arabic in the region.
“My friends were like, ‘Is that safe? Are you going to be killed by terrorists?’” she said.
In 2010, Jordan had one of its most profitable years ever for tourism – 2.5 billion dinar, or about $3.5 billion. But in 2011, tourism to Jordan dropped 16 percent – a reality many here assign to fears surrounding the current unrest across the Middle East. In a country where on average, about $3 billion comes from tourism every year – which directly accounts for more than 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product – a dip that significant can put thousands of jobs at risk.
“Yes, we’ve had cancellations. More than 50 percent in the past three years,” said Saeed Al-Dawoudi, general manager of Winner International Tours of Jordan, a travel agency located on chi-chi Rainbow Street in Amman. He said that April 2011, the height of the Arab Spring movement, was the biggest month for cancellations at the company – especially among Americans and Europeans – since Sept. 11, 2001.
Tha’er Khateeb, assistant restaurant manager at the Marriott in Amman, agreed, saying that Sept. 11 impacted tourism worldwide, but the Arab Spring has turned visitors away from the Middle East in particular. “The crisis in Syria affected us a lot. Egypt too. Especially Egypt,” said Khateeb.
Even though Jordan hasn’t faced as much turbulence as other countries in the area, violence still affects potential tourists’ view of the Middle East region. So, by association, this small country of 6.5 million is suffering.
“We are in the middle of the struggles. Tourists think Jordan is the same country as Iraq,” said Al-Dawoudi. “They hear ‘Middle East’ and they get scared.” To illustrate that point, the Jordan Tourism Board offered this snapshot statistic: The number of European tourists visiting Wadi Rum, one of the most popular destinations here, decreased by 50.6 percent from 2010 to 2011.
However, there is hope. While Americans and Europeans are still staying away, Middle Eastern tourists, especially from the wealthier Arabian Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, are beginning to return to Jordan, especially since vacation hotspots such as Egypt and Syria are not options these days.
Cynthia Barcham, a 27-year-old Beirut native, was in Amman in May for her work at the Goethe-Institut, a German cultural organization. Sitting in the lobby of the Amman West Hotel with her luggage, she said that business brought her to Jordan, but she was looking forward to spending a few hours at the Dead Sea before her flight home.
“Everyone is very welcoming here, but all the Arab countries are like this. It’s not like Europe,” Barcham said.
Siham Gammoh, the director of research at the Amman-based Jordan Tourism Board, said in the first four months of 2012, the number of Arabian Gulf visitors to Jordan increased 19 percent from the previous year. Arabian Gulf tourists, in the past, vacationed in places such as Beirut or Damascus, but conflict in the region has caused them to look elsewhere. And it looks like some of them are coming here.
That’s a sentiment echoed by Lorrance Hausrie, the owner of Jara on Rainbow Street. In her store, she sells jewelry and scarves and depends on tourists visiting the famous, trendy street. Hausrie believes that tourism is down overall, but there have been more Saudi Arabian and Bahraini tourists in the past several months.
“Before they went to Syria, but now they come to Jordan,” said Hausrie. “They know our country is safe.”
Browsing Hausrie’s store is Lauren Rayner, a 30-year-old psychiatric researcher from London. Rayner said that the conflict in the region didn’t affect her decision to take a nine-day vacation to Jordan.
“My mum was a bit worried,” said Rayner, but stressed that her friends were jealous of, not worried about, her trip. Rayner visited the Dead Sea, Petra and Wadi Rum, and spent her last day of vacation in Amman. She decided to come to Jordan because she found cheap airline tickets, and after doing research found that Jordan offered a mix of climates and experiences.
“We try to promote Jordan as a variety,” said Siham Gammoh of the Jordan Tourism Board. The board is partially supported by the government, and partially supported by private enterprises. But Al-Dawoudi said promoting Jordan has been one of his biggest obstacles. He said in the past, most of his clients visited Jordan as one leg of a longer Middle Eastern trip, often to Egypt, Israel and Lebanon. So when Egypt faces a period of turbulence, visitors cancel the entire trip and Jordan loses out as well.
“Now we cannot promote other countries with Jordan. We can only promote Jordan,” said Al-Dawoudi, adding that Winner has encouraged business travelers such as Barcham to continue exploring Jordan when their business trips are completed.
Although Winner has not laid off employees due to the Arab Spring, Al-Dawoudi said other travel agencies have had to. In 2011, 113,500 Jordanians officially worked in the tourism sector, according to a report by the World Travel and Tourism Council. A report by the Jordan Tourism Board stated that only about 1 percent of those people lost their jobs last year, but others indirectly associated with tourism – such as cab drivers – would have been seriously affected too.
The hope among all in the tourism industry is that vacationers from other Arab states keep coming, and that Americans and Europeans decide to come back too.
“If we have tourists, we can work,” said Hausrie, echoing the fears of many business owners.