Arab Spring and the global financial crisis delivered a double whammy to tourism in the Middle East. The Arab world lost more than U.S.$7 billion in tourism revenue as a result of 2011’s upheaval, according to Bandar bin Fahd Al Fahed, the chairman of the Arab Tourism Organization. (Reported by Ahram Online, September 30, 2011.)
One Arab country that has escaped the worst of the turmoil is Jordan. Demonstrations there have been relatively orderly, directed mainly at the country’s parliamentary government. At least to visiting foreigners, rank-and-file Jordanians profess fierce allegiance to King Abdullah II, who they say is the unifying force in a still largely tribal society, and who they credit with initiating and supporting economic and constitutional reforms.
Likenesses of the monarch and his family, such as this mosaic of the King, are ubiquitous throughout Jordan. Abdullah II is named for his great-grandfather, Abdullah I, the first king and founder of the state of Jordan. The family is descended from the Prophet Mohammad.
But while Jordan has suffered from the troubles in neighboring Syria and Egypt, mainly because Petra was often an extension to thousands of canceled package tours to those countries, the tiny desert kingdom’s tourism industry has held on. “Jordan was one of the countries that proved safe and stable enough to survive the crisis,” Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit said at a conference in Aqaba this week. (Reported by The Jordan Times today.)
Jordanian officials note that while tourism is down overall over 2010, it is up from Gulf countries, while billions of dollars in construction of tourism infrastructure like a new mega-resort in the Red Sea city of Aqaba and luxury hotels on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea have continue to flow uninterrupted into the country.
While on a recent visit to Jordan, I was surprised to learn that tourism makes a relatively modest contribution to Jordan’s economy; earning around U.S.3.4 billion, or only 13 percent of GDP, according to the latest official statistics. One would think that the balmy Mediterranean climate, layers of history that start with the earliest human settlements, Petra and a plethora of other ancient ruins, stunning desert and Red Sea landscapes, amazing food (and very drinkable domestic wine), and a tradition of hospitality that goes back to caravanserais along the very first trade routes, would bring in hordes of visitors. Yet Jordan is surprisingly not overrun by tourists, and most of its special places have not been over-developed — at least not now. This will probably change in time, as Jordan has much to offer visitors, and the Jordanian government is anxious to develop tourism as a source of both revenue and jobs.
Arrival at the Treasury, the most famous of the carved edifices of Petra, is by way of a narrow rock chasm called the Siq. In spite of its familiarity as an iconic postcard photo, I was not prepared for the thrill of this first glimpse of the Treasury.
Less than 20 percent of Petra’s archaeological heritage is presumed to have been excavated. Archaeologists are not anxious to uncover any more structures because of the high cost of preserving what has already been exposed. Wind and rain are the main forces eroding the soft sandstone. But large numbers of tourists and the infrastructure that supports them (shops, toilets, restaurants) are also taking their toll.
Jordan’s tourism rock star is Petra, the 8,000-year-old Nabatean city listed as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. UNESCO describes it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage”. National Geographic Traveler lists it as one of the Fifty Places of a Lifetime. (See photos of Petra, explore a 360-degree image of the rock city; read “Lost City” of Petra Still Has Secrets to Reveal; visit the Petra Archaeological Park website and the UNESCO World Heritage site for Petra)
For students of the Roman Empire, Jordan offers many ancient ruins, notably Jerash, a city to rival Ephesus in Turkey, with remarkably well preserved streets, baths, theaters, and a hippodrome used by its citizens to watch chariot races and gladiator contests.
The ancient street stones of Jerash are well marked with the ruts made by Roman chariots.
Tourists are treated to daily reenactments of Roman army maneuvers and gladiator fighting in the Jerash hippodrome, where such events really took place thousands of years ago.
Our guide told us these were former soldiers of the Jordanian Army who learned to play the bagpipes as part of the traditions inherited from the British administration of the country. Finding them in the ruined Roman city of Jerash playing a medley of English, Scottish and even French and American tunes was quite entertaining. More than 42,000 Jordanians are employed directly in country’s tourism sector and perhaps as many as another 120,000 are employed indirectly, according to the Jordan Tourism Board. That equals about 10 percent of the country’s workforce.
Christians know Jordan as a critical part of the original Holy Land, the place where Jesus Christ was baptized and began his ministry. Jordan is also the location of Mount Nebo, where according to the Bible, God showed Moses a glimpse of the Promised Land, and near where Moses is buried. (Read more about Mount Nebo in this Ten Sacred Mountains excerpt from the National Geographic book Sacred Places of a Lifetime.)
The site where Jesus is said to have been baptized. The River Jordan no longer flows here, but the archaeological remains of very early Christian churches and shrines point to the legitimacy of the site, Jordanian officials say. The entire spot is utterly tranquil and beautifully preserved and maintained, reached via a long path through trees and scrub filled with birds. There are no vendors and no trash to be seen anywhere near the sacred site. Visitors guide themselves with the help of digital headsets and audio commentary (in seven languages) provided as part of the entrance fee. (Learn more about the Baptism Site of Jesus Christ.)
This mosaic was erected to commemorate the March 2000 visit by Pope John Paul II to the site of the baptism of Jesus. Christian leaders have recognized the authenticity of this site of the baptism, and therefore the place where Christianity began. That’s my shadow on the mosaic, deliberately cast there for the photograph, at least as temporary evidence that I also walked through this historic place.
Jordan has the eastern shoreline of the Dead Sea, the lowest place on the surface of the Earth. It’s mineral-laden waters are famous for their bouyancy, and the healing powers of their salts. Celebrities come to the luxury resorts beside the salty water to relax in Dead Sea-filled swimming pools and mud baths. (Read the National Geographic Intelligent Travel blog post Ten Dead Sea Tips.)
And for adventurers, Jordan offers more than a hundred wadis, steep canyons cascading a thousand feet below sea level to the Dead Sea, many of them with gushing rapids fed by hot springs.
Jordan’s wadis imaged by NASA’s Terra satellite on May 17, 2001. The Arabic word “wadi” means a gulley or streambed that typically remains dry except after drenching, seasonal rains, NASA says in the caption with the image.
Perhaps the most celebrated desert feature of Jordan is Wadi Rum, inscribed only a few months ago by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. (View the National Geographic Photo of the Day: Wadi Rum Desert.)
After spending a night with Bedouins in their desert camp (in great comfort, with music and a feast cooked in a sand oven under the open sky), we rode on camels for more than a hour through the desert to watch the sunrise.
UNESCO describes Wadi Rum as “a varied desert landscape consisting of a range of narrow gorges, natural arches, towering cliffs, ramps, massive landslides and caverns. Petroglyphs, inscriptions and archaeological remains in the site testify to 12,000 years of human occupation and interaction with the natural environment. The combination of 25,000 rock carvings with 20,000 inscriptions trace the evolution of human thought and the early development of the alphabet.” It’s a write-up that helps express why I found this to be one of the most spiritual places I have ever visited.
Wadi Rum petroglyphs.
Wadi Rum is also where the British officer T.E. Lawrence worked with the Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. (See the National Geographic Lawrence of Arabia gallery.) The 50th anniversary of the making of the feature film about his experiences, Lawrence of Arabia, is one of three big events that promise to make 2012 a uniquely special year to visit Jordan.
A view of Amman from the Citadel, on top of one of the capital city’s seven hills. Amman is referenced in the Bible as the site of great battles, including wars waged by King David.
The marble head of the Goddess Tyche, daughter of Zeus. The Roman-period head was found in the the Citadel museum’s garden in 1957. Tyche was the goddess of fortune and patron of Amman.
Also on the Citadel are the ruins of a temple to Hercules. The fingers in the foreground are said to be one of only two pieces left of a giant statue of the god of war. It reminded me of the poem I learned as a school student, Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
In the video interview below, Nayef H. Al-Fayez, managing director of the Jordan Tourism Board, talks about why 2012 will be an exciting opportunity to visit his country: Wadi Rum, where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed half a century ago, the 200th anniversary of the “rediscovery” of Petra (by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt), and the shortlisting of the Dead Sea as one of the world’s Seven Wonders of Nature.
To the many reasons to come to Jordan, he says, these are three new huge attractions. And then there’s the Jordanian hospitality. “We don’t look at tourists as tourists, we look at them as guests .. and, as we say, guests are the guests of God, which explains how precious to us they are.”
The interview was taped by candlelight in September 2011, at a Dead Sea resort restaurant.
Sunset over the Dead Sea can be enjoyed from many vantage points in Jordan, down at the water’s edge or, as in this photo, hundreds of feet above. As the sun slides under the hills of Palestine and Israel, the lights come on. Jerusalem and Jericho are among the towns and settlements that can be seen clearly. The Dead Sea has been nominated as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.
David Braun visited Jordan with a delegation of North American bloggers hosted by the Jordan Tourism Board.
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.