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Tourism is understandably down, but now is the time to visit Jordan

Barring an escalation in the Israel-Gaza conflict, it feels safe to visit

The Treasury at Petra, normally thronged with tourists, was sparsely attended on Andy's visit Andy Sambidge
The Treasury at Petra, normally thronged with tourists, was sparsely attended on Andy's visit

Telling family and friends that my wife and I were off on holiday to Jordan as the Israel-Gaza conflict continues evoked the same response time and time again.

“Shouldn’t you cancel? Surely it’s not safe there.”

They are not alone in thinking this. According to the latest figures from ForwardKeys, a travel analytics company, international arrivals into Jordan were down by 54 percent in the three weeks after the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 compared with the three weeks prior.

Only Israel and Saudi Arabia have recorded larger declines in the same period, the figures showed.

S&P Global Ratings also predicts that a prolonged conflict in Gaza and Israel is likely to lead to a significant contraction in GDP and loss of foreign exchange receipts in neighbouring countries, including the Hashemite kingdom, which shares its western border with Israel.

But, barring an escalation in the conflict, it is perfectly safe to visit Jordan. I would even argue that there’s never been a better time, with no queues at the major tourism attractions during a traditionally busy period.

It’s an important message to deliver as tourism is a lifeblood of the local economy, making up about 20 percent of GDP.

Tourism also provides jobs for about a fifth of the population in Jordan, where unemployment stands at around 19 percent. 

Our guide/driver was one of these and he told me that he had made five recent trips to Queen Alia International Airport in Amman expecting to pick up international tourists – only to discover they had cancelled their flights.

“People just read the news headlines and make cancellations,” he told me as we travelled from the port city of Aqaba in the south up to the Dead Sea. “If they came here, they would see that it is safe.”

At one point, the road we drove along was within touching distance of the Israeli border and security watchtowers were clearly visible, but it never felt unsafe. I was more worried about the threat posed by the high volume of huge trucks travelling between local potash, phosphate and salt mines to the port.

Unusual signs

Everywhere we went in Jordan it was clear that this was no normal high season for tourism.

In fact, the first sign was even before arriving. At the gate at Heathrow, it was obvious the Royal Jordanian Boeing 787 was not full and a large majority of passengers appeared to be Jordanian nationals returning home.

In Amman, the historic Citadel site – similar to the Forum in Rome – was quiet, and restaurant reservations were not required.

Many of the city’s distinctive green taxis were parked up, their drivers idle. If you dared to walk, you could expect frequent honks from drivers looking for business.

Sunbeds lie empty around the pool at the Kempinski hotel in AqabaAndy Sambidge
Sunbeds lie empty around the pool at the Kempinski hotel in Aqaba

At Aqaba, the luxury Kempinski hotel was a ghost town, with only a handful of people sitting by the pool and beach each day. Two of its bars were closed for refurbishment while the often frustrating task of calling a lift was instantaneous – sure signs of low occupancy.

Even in Petra, the centrepiece of Jordan’s tourism offering, there were no queues at the ticket booth. Our guide estimated he’d seen a 85 percent slump in demand for his services since early October.

Where thousands of people would normally trek daily to see the splendour of the Treasury building carved out of the rock, I saw maybe 300 during our five hours on site.

It’s important to note that Jordan does not have the luxury of an oil industry to fall back on in times of crisis. 

Jordan is also one of the most water-scarce countries in the world and imports more than 90 percent of its energy and national grain consumption needs, according to the World Bank.

Earlier this month, it reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a new $1.2 billion four-year reform programme to help cushion the economy from the adverse impact of regional conflict.

Jordan’s tourism industry is a central factor in this, and brought in revenue of nearly $3.5 billion during the first six months of 2023, up 59 percent compared with the same period of last year.

Driving back to the airport, our driver asked us to encourage our friends and family to visit Jordan “despite what they may have heard”, which sparked the idea for this column.

As he dropped us off at departures, he also revealed he was scheduled to pick up another British couple later that day. I really hope they turned up.

Andy Sambidge is AGBI’s international editor. He flew into Queen Alia International Airport in Amman on November 10 and returned to Heathrow on Sunday.

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