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Influx of tourists emphasize Jordan’s diversified tourism

Promoting its image as a safe haven in a volatile region, Jordan is optimistic it can turn its tourism industry, already a vital pillar of the national economy, into an engine of growth in the years to come. And the optimism seems well placed. The tourism industry seems to be showing signs of improvement. The number of tourists visiting Jordan in the first four months of 2004 increased by an impressive 43.3 percent compared to the same period in 2003.

Around 470 thousand tourists visited the Kingdom between January and April this year and generated JD173 million in receipts compared to JD136 million during the first four months of 2003.

Officials forecast an additional half million tourists will visit the country in the next few months. An increasing number of tourists are coming to Jordan to enjoy its diverse natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. A mixed ecosystem, varied geographic terrains, as well as abundant historical sites, make it a favored destination for nature lovers, adventure-seekers and history buffs alike. To capitalize on the surge in world tourism, the private and public sector joined to prepare a national tourism strategy that aims to double tourism receipts to JD 1.3 billion, to create more than 51,000 new jobs and to collect JD455 million in taxes by 2010.

In tandem with the strategy, the government undertook efforts to reform the tourism sector by adapting legislation comparable with world trends and in a manner conducive to promoting investment and encouraging private sector initiatives and investment opportunities, according to Dr. Alia Bouran, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities and the Environment. There is no doubt that tourism plays a fundamental role in the economic prosperity of the Kingdom. In 2003, it was the largest private sector employer, directly employing 22,110 in hotels and travel agencies and indirectly providing thousands of job opportunities in tourism-related sectors like construction, transportation, retail and other industries.

Tourism was also the second highest earner of foreign exchange following worker remittances, contributing over JD570 million in revenues, which is about 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. In addition to the country's stunning landscape, fascinating cultural heritage, and world-class historic sites, Jordan has become a leader in medical tourism. In 2002 more than more than 100,000 Arabs came to the country for medical treatment. The country’s highly specialized doctors, modern health facilities, cost effectiveness, common language, and proximity have given Jordan’s health industry a competitive advantage. Many tourist attractions, rich with mineral-saturated water and volcanic mud, are doubling as sophisticated health spas.

Among the best known is the Dead Sea, which lies at the lowest point on Earth, 400 meters below sea level. Just 30 minutes by road from Amman, the Dead Sea boasts 40 mineral springs and 15 known archeological sites, including a pool and a palace built by the Roman Emperor Herod, who used the Dead Sea waters for treatment of skin disease. Tourism has also positively affected remote communities where various cultural and archaeological tourist attractions are located. Often, these remote areas lack the components of other sustainable industries like agriculture and manufacturing and are reliant on tourist-driven services and industries for their development. Dana Nature Reserve, run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), is a well-known model of integrated development and conservation. In addition to the wildlife, Dana is abundant with archaeological sites, including ancient copper mines in Wadi Feinan. The ecotourism activities in the reserve are in synergy with the socio-economic projects that help improve living standards and create work opportunities for the local inhabitants. Income-generating schemes include pottery, silver jewelry, plant production and food processing. Items are promoted on site and at upscale outlets in Amman.

To us, ecotourism is a tool for conservation. It creates jobs for the local community around the reserves, who in turn become to appreciate the resources and they work to protect them. In addition to raising national awareness, ecotourism generates income that contributes to the sustainability of the protected areas,” says Khalid Irani, RSCN director general. The RSCN has so far designated six nature reserves in Jordan: Ajlun, Al-Azraq, Shaumari, Mujib, Wadi Rum and Dana.

Eco-tourism is the current trend, and nature reserves are increasingly becoming popular attractions,” says Awni Qawar, general manager of Petra Tours. Staple destinations on any tourist’s itinerary are visits to the Nabatean city of Petra, the long-lost red-rose city carved in stone and Jerash, one of the best preserved Roman provincial towns, with paved and colonnaded streets, hilltop temples, fountains and acoustically impeccable colossal amphitheaters.

Cultural heritage aside, we need to explore other niche markets that we can capitalize on, like sports,” Qawar says, referring to the theme chosen by the World Tourism Organization for this year’s World Tourism Day (September 27) which is “Sport and Tourism, two living forces for mutual understanding, culture and development of society.” A central goal of Jordan’s National Tourism Strategy, a joint initiative of the private and public sectors launched mid 2004, is to create a range of high-quality, world class tourism experiences with innovative products and services targeting niche markets. Accordingly, Jordan will be promoted as a boutique destination offering leisure (adventure, ecotourism, cultural, archaeological, cruising, religious, health and wellness), business and MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events) programs.

Jordan has great assets and greater prospects to develop into a premium destination. The economic potential outranks virtually any other industry, but it requires concerted and sustained efforts to realize them,” says Ahmad Bashiti, managing director of the Jordan Inbound Tour Operators Association (JITOA). Experts, industry leaders and government officials agree that so far tourism has been under-performing, and its 8-10 percent contribution to the GDP is below the world average of 10.5-12.5 percent. His Majesty King Abdallah has repeatedly expressed his keenness to promote Jordan’s tourism industry. He presented the national strategy to a gathering of international travel and tourism experts at the World Economic Forum at the Dead Sea in May 2004. In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Faisal El Fayez last July, the King stressed the importance of the tourism sector and its pivotal role in enhancing economic growth, calling for more government procedures to implement the already approved strategy.

Key to the implementation and success of the strategy is public sector involvement. Unlike other industries, the private sector cannot succeed alone,” stresses Matt McNulty, a tourism expert credited with playing a pivotal role in the explosive growth of the Irish tourism industry. McNulty acted as a consultant to Jordan’s national tourism strategy formulated by the National Tourism Council, an entity grouping private and public sector representatives and entrusted with coordinating national efforts towards enhancing the tourism sector in the country.

The government is the biggest single beneficiary of the tourism industry. Tourism is a large contributor to the national economy at all its stages,” McNulty says, explaining that during their stay, tourists pay taxes and charges for services provided by both the public and private sectors. The strategy calls for greater involvement of the private sector in investing in and managing public assets. For the first time, the private sector is invited to invest in the Kingdom’s various tourism and archaeological sites within guidelines set by the Ministry of Tourism.

The strategy is a road map that puts us in the right direction. Each vendor and sector has a role and has to take the initiative to implement the strategy, especially the private sector,” Bashiti said. Vital for the success of the strategy is increased investment in tourism marketing. The Jordan Tourism Board (JTB), the entity entrusted with marketing Jordan to the outside world, currently undertakes promotional campaigns but needs additional funds to better position Jordan in the international markets. The strategy recommends that the JTB’s budget be increased to two percent of the national tourism receipts. Also crucial is the adoption of the open skies policy. Samer Majali, president and CEO of Royal Jordanian, the national carrier, agrees.

Open skies is essential for the development of tourism,” yet he is quick to add that it must be linked to economic parity to ensure fair competition between airlines. The open skies policy allows foreign airlines to operate charter and regular flights into countries without necessarily being bound by reciprocal agreements. Presently, it is in effect in the Aqaba Special Economic Zone with regular and charter flights passing through King Hussein International Airport, while only charter flights are operated in and out of Amman airports.

Amman,26October2004
Redaction
The Star


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