Europeans, Americans stay away amid unrest, prompting search for replacement; tourism from Gulf Cooperation Council grows.
A promotional campaign urging visitors from the Gulf to visit Jordan appears to be paying off for the Hashemite Kingdom, whose hotels and attractions have been struggling with a drop in tourism from Europe and America.
Although Jordan has been relatively quiet, unrest elsewhere in the Middle East has frightened travelers and caused tourist arrivals from Europe to the Hashemite Kingdom to drop by over 17% in the first eight months of this year to 400,000 from 483,000 in 2010. The number of visitors from North and South America declined by 13% to just 125,000.
But, according to data obtained by The Media Line, at least 26% more visitors from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, states came to Jordan in the first eight months of 2011, compared with the same period last year.
With its economy rattled by unrest, a growing import bill and interruptions in the supply of natural gas imported from Egypt, Jordan needs tourism earnings more than ever. The International Monetary Fund cut its forecast on Tuesday for the country’s economic growth to 2.5% this year from a previous 3.3%.
Foreseeing that the tumult of the Arab Spring would likely deter Western visitors, Jordan’s Tourism Ministry moved to compensate by encouraging more Arabs to visit, especially from the GCC.
Jordan’s top attractions include the ruins of the ancient city of Petra and the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, which was named Arab Tourism Capital of 2011 by the Arab Tourism Ministers Council. The designation has helped it draw some of the tourism away from the volatile, shark-invested resorts in the Egyptian Sinai coast. It has fewer strictures on liquor and the intermingling of the sexes than many of the conservative Gulf kingdoms.
According to a report from the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism, some 827,132 tourists from the Gulf visited between January and August this year and spent more than one night in the country. In contrast, just 658,197 came in the same period last year. Nearly seven out of eight of the Gulf country visitors came from Saudi Arabia (718,000), which was almost twice as much as the previous year.
Just over half of the GCC visitors arriving in Jordan last year were “transit tourists,” who spent no more than a few hours in the country on their way to Syria or Lebanon. The Tourism Promotion Authority launched “vigorous efforts” to entice these kinds of travelers to stay for a real vacation. Jordan has been hoping to capitalize on its image of a relatively calm country amidst turbulent unrest to draw visitors.
The number of tourists from African countries also grew, with 17% more arriving in the first eight months over the 8,786 in the same period last year. The Tourism Ministry data also showed an 8% increase in tourists from Asia and the Pacific, with 189,327 arriving so far this year.
The report cited the decline from the West as “not significant under the circumstances” and could be adjusted quickly when stable conditions return to the region.
Anti-government protests have largely subsided in Jordan. Over the weekend, a million-man march was called in Amman to protest in front of the Israeli Embassy amid a rising tide of anti-Israeli demonstrations in the Middle East. While only 300 showed up, Israel chose to evacuate its embassy.
Weekly demonstrations demanding political reform erupted in Jordan earlier this year, but were milder that protest movements elsewhere in the Arab world. Key drivers of unrest have included unemployment, high living costs and corruption, but a consensus has emerged in demands for political reforms. King Abdullah, a key US ally in the region, has promised reforms and amendments to the constitution in a bid to snuff out protests.
Tourism to Jordan surged last year, according to official figures released in January, with overnight visits up to 4.55 million from 3.78 million in 2009 and visitors spending a 2.42 billion Jordanian dinars ($3.4 billion) in the process. But according to the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Jordan saw a dramatic 27% drop in visitors in May preceded by a 20.5 % drop in April.
That stands in contrast to global trends: Worldwide international tourism rose 4.5% in the first half of this year to 440 million, 19 million more than the same period last year, according to the latest update of the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer. Tourism to the Middle East was down 10.8%.
Alternatively, the recently released Maplecraft Terrorism Risk Index showed that travel to Jordan is not without its risks. But it noted that the protests have been “scattered and small in size.”
“Jordan is one of the top-10 most water scarce countries in the world. This condition is exacerbated by an increasing population and water intensive sectors such as agriculture and industry. Furthermore, climate change is expected to result in higher temperatures and less rainfall, making water scarcity an important issue to consider in the future,” the report said.
“It was clear that this was the tourism capital of Jordan. There were lots of Saudis and their families there,” Gary Bregman, a tourist from a Western country who had recently visited Aqaba, told The Media Line. “The cafes were packed. They had real liquor stores, nicer than any I’d seen in the rest of the world, and massage parlors. It was clear you could do things in Aqaba you couldn’t do in other cities in Jordan.
“There were lots of Arabs vacationing and there was no reason not to. It is nearby, easy to get to and there is something interesting for them to do,” he added.