|Travel industry hit by long-term drop in tourism
|The colonnaded streets of Jerash, which once attracted thousands of worldly tourists, fulfilling their historical appreciation of Roman architecture or biblical intrigue, is witnessing its third year of abandonment, as conflicts in the region continue to leave holiday-makers hesitant in travelling to the Kingdom.
Tour guides wait patiently for any signs of visitors in the newly designed foyer at the entrance of Jerash.
Four names, in total signed in the guest book for that day, indicate the dramatic decline of interest in this famous Jordanian tourist destination, second only to Petra.
Dharar Atmeh, one of four tour guides out of 23 who decided to continue working despite the "dead" atmosphere, cited the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, the September 11 attacks in New York in 2001 and the recent US-led war on Iraq as the core reasons for the dwindling number of visitors to sites across the country.
He said that in his profession, which was once regarded as highly "lucrative", he used to earn $50 to $100 a day. But in the last three months, he admitted to having barely scraped a portion of his former income, adding that some of his colleagues had made little or nothing at all.
"There could not be a worse time to be in the tourism industry than right now. This will be our third year of suffering and it feels like real unemployment," Atmeh said.
A feeling of low job security and a lack of government provisions for medical aid and pension schemes have further exacerbated this sentiment, leaving Atmeh and his colleagues "frustrated" over career prospects.
"There are no other alternatives in Jordan’s job market at present … and since we know that this season has already been lost because of the small number of advance group bookings, we will just have to wait until September to try and pick up where we left off."
Meanwhile, a souvenir vendor, standing alone in the mid-afternoon heat among centuries-old pillars, chanted to venturing visitors to purchase one of his assortment of gifts. His stall, diffused with different types of batteries, camera films and post cards, has been the source of his livelihood for the past 22 years.
"Please buy something, business is terrible", the retailer pleaded to any passer-by who looked unfamiliar from the local staff.
At the near-by restaurant, Khader Rabba’ head of the Jerash Rest House, reminisced when business was good and when he employed up to 30 members of staff to cook and prepare the buffets for multi-diverse crowds.
"I remember when we used to get up to 500 people for lunch alone, now we are lucky to get five." He added: "I have had to release almost all of my staff to cover the costs of running this restaurant, keeping just two cooks and two waiters."
Rabba’ admitted that unlike other restaurants in the country, paying the high taxes associated with opening a venue on a historical site has seen him borrowing thousands of dinars in order to cover the cost of utilities, including electricity and water.
But Jerash is just one tourist venue hit by the withering industry, according to Marwan Khoury, head of the Jordan Tourism Board, who indicated that roughly 100,000 workers directly and indirectly involved in the trade were also waiting for signs of improvement.
"We have been living on crisis since September 2000," Khoury stressed, adding that some employees had either lost their jobs as a result of the slump or had taken an early annual leave.
Khoury asserted that while holidaymakers from the "Western hemisphere" were weary of planning trips to Jordan due to the numerous travel restrictions issued by foreign embassies prior to the war in Iraq, traffic from the Gulf and other Arab states continued at a significant rate.
"Tourism is a resilient industry and its ability to recover is magnificent in all aspects," he said. "There is a perception that it is necessary to restore security to the region but we are optimistic that this will be re-established before the summer months."
This "optimism" has seen the development of projects throughout the country including an ambitious infrastructure program to expand the number of hotels and roads in Aqaba and the Dead Sea. Khoury confirmed that two five-star hotels in Aqaba had already been completed.
However, despite the various projects currently "in the pipeline", including an extensive study by Al-Urdan Al-Jadid research center, which aims at promoting Jordan’s tourism sector to Western academics and intellectuals, travel agencies have also shown signs of strain in overcoming their extensive losses.
Ashraf Alrantisi, head of business travel at United Travel Agency, once ranked number one in the industry, said in order "to stay alive", the business has also had to take strict measures in laying off employees and cutting costs, including promotional trips to the US and Europe.
"About 65 per cent of our colleagues have either resigned or been fired," Alrantisi said, showing a discouraging indication that the industry could take up to two or three years to "regain the trust" of their former clientele.
Reading an email from a British travel partner in Cyprus, Hanan Theodorie, operation manager at Rose City Travel and Tourism, a family-run travel agency, smiles dishearteningly. "My colleague abroad will only allow his clients to travel to Jordan if we can guarantee their safety," she said.
"At the moment, many British believe they are a ‘prime target of attack’ in this country and I have tried my best to explain to them that Jordan is regionally secure. But they want proof from the authorities."
As with the other 350 travel agents in the country, Theodorie is hoping that associations and unions in Jordan will continue to pressure the government into providing assistance or compensation for workers in the tourism industry.
Yet, when asked if she is willing to close her company as a result of the pending tourism crisis and her own high debt responsibilities, Theodorie avowed: "Even if banks are over my head and I have to cut all my resources because of one or two years of slow times, I am not willing to jeopardise the building of this company."
"This has been my life for ten years, and I am that little bit optimistic that we will return back to the way we used to be."