Natural Growth

With a resurgence in eco-tourism, a plan to save the Dead Sea, and a number of new hotel developments, future growth looks certain for Jordan’s tourism industry

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By  Laura Barnes Published  November 3, 2005

|~|Wadi-Rum-5L.jpg|~|Natural attractions, such as Wadi Rum, are pulling in the tourists.|~|With tales of lost cities, biblical references to Gilead and endless memories of Lawrence of Arabia and Aqaba, Jordan certainly has the history and the culture to be one of the top tourist destinations in the region. However, the political instability in neighbouring countries and an economic downturn saw the country’s tourism decline in recent years. Despite this, 2005 has proved something of a turning point as visitors and tourism investment returns to the Kingdom, and Jordan has begun to see some spectacular tourism figures, prompted by eco-tourism and a number of new luxury hotels and resorts. Inbound tourism figures are testament to this turnaround, and in the first quarter of this year alone, the Jordanian Tourism Board (JTB) recorded over 331,000 visitors, compared to only 266,000 in the same period last year, with its largest market — intra-regional travellers — increasing by 5.1%. “Recent figures show a strong return in tourism to the Kingdom,” says Mazen Homoud, managing director, JTB. “For January and February this year, for example, holidaymakers on package tours increased by 120%, while the average length of stay now equates to 4.19 days as opposed to 3.34 last year.” A number of tourism developments have also been underway in the Kingdom. Hotel chains looking to the future are eyeing Jordan as a potential boom market for the years to come. Currently, for example, Le Meridien Amman is renovating 300 of its 450 rooms in order to attract even more customers from the region, as well as from Europe and America. “We have some of the largest rooms and suites in the country so we are able to offer the epitome of comfort and luxury,” says Gerhard Mansbart, general manager, Le Meridien Amman. “At the moment, we are seeing a healthy increase in room nights and total spend per room sold, so we are very happy with that. But in order to maintain this, we are working with the travel trade and the JTB in order to help increase business and hotel projects,” he adds. Tourism figures are strong in Amman and this looks set to continue next year. Further developments across the country are also helping to increase trade in other cities. The Dead Sea and Petra recorded a 243% growth, with combined visitor numbers of over 64,000 for the first quarter of 2004, compared to the previous year. The reason for this sudden leap is certainly due to two main factors. Firstly, the building of hotels and spa resorts is attracting more customers. Marriott, for example, is looking at future expansion programmes beginning with the Jordan Valley Marriott Resort & Spa. “In 2003, a British daily newspaper labelled Jordan Valley Marriott as one of the top ten destinations worldwide, two years later and we are planning an extension for the resort and spa, adding a further 70 rooms to the already existing resort,” comments Lama Nimr, director of marketing communications, Marriott Hotels, Jordan. “In addition, JW Marriott has plans to expand operations in the Red Sea Resort of Aqaba with a 300-room beach, marina and spa resort set to begin construction by the end of next year,” explains Nimr. A 365-room Kempinski is also soon to be completed at the Dead Sea, while InterContinental recently announced plans to extend its Jordan portfolio with a 420-room Crowne Plaza and 202-room Holiday Inn scheduled to open at the Dead Sea in 2007. Meanwhile, Dubai-based Jumeirah has been linked with a deal to manage three five-star properties at the Saraya Aqaba tourism project at the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, due to open in 2009. Such growth is ambitious, but with 1.74 million tourists staying overnight in Jordan in 2004, and the number of people visiting for longer breaks also increasing, more hotels of international standards are definitely warranted. eco-tourism The second major growth area of Jordan’s tourism industry is its natural attractions. Eco-tourism is proving big business in the kingdom. Although tourists are only just beginning to notice eco-tourism as an option when visiting Jordan, the Hashemite Kingdom recognised the need to safeguard its natural resources as early as 1966, by setting up protected areas under the management of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). The RSCN has been working since then to preserve wildlife and scenic areas, as well as breeding endangered species. It also protects a number of wadis across the Kingdom in order to preserve the natural beauty of the area for tourists. “The great thing about eco-tourism is that people can travel to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated areas to enjoy the natural and cultural heritage of the area with minimum disruption to the environment,” enthuses Homoud. “From an economic point of view, it is a sound venture as it stimulates economic activity and growth in remote and rural areas, without entailing large scale investment,” he adds. The establishment of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) has also helped create awareness for eco-tourism. The relatively new authority is now working closely with the RSCN in order to help protect sites of ecological interest. For instance, ASEZA is a leading authority in protecting Jordan’s Gulf of Aqaba, in the northeastern arm of the Red Sea, as well as protecting the Wadi Rum area. “ASEZA’s zone has recently grown to now bring in an area we term as the golden triangle, stretching from the Red Sea coast line through to the Wadi Rum protected area. The area is a nature lover’s dream so it has to be protected,” warns Nader Al Dahabi, chief commissioner, ASEZA. Protecting wadis like Wadi Rum is an ideal example of eco-tourism. Not only does the wadi attract thousands of visitors but it also holds plants both rare and endemic to its ecosystem. However, a greater emphasis has also been put on the wadi’s fauna after a baseline survey detected the existence of rare animals around the wadi, such as the grey wolf, the blanford fox and the sand cat. In areas like Wadi Rum, as well as six other well established, protected zones in the country, there is more work being undertaken than just ensuring visitors are able to enjoy the scenery and natural wildlife. A major part of the eco-tourism offering is educating visitors, not only about the physical landscape, but also about the culture and heritage of the region. “We do work on the enforcement of wildlife protection, as well as economic development, environmental research and education. Part of our role is to also help visitors discover [more about] Jordanian people, places and [the] philosophy behind local crafts,” comments Amer Jamhour, sales & marketing director, RSCN. As part of this scheme, RSCN has opened cafes and craft shops around its main reserves, with the latest venture being the Wild Jordan Café in the heart of Amman City. The café displays and sells local crafts inspired by nature and using natural materials. “Whether a painted ostrich egg, silver olive branch earrings or a goat leather nature box, our crafts are modern, arty, and different to many across the world, as they draw inspiration from the local surroundings,” Jamhour says. In addition, conservation efforts are now being focused on the Dead Sea, as fears grow that the lowest point on earth is gradually disappearing. As this is such a large tourist pull for the country, the government is eager to resolve this problem as quickly as possible in order to prevent further disappearance of the landmark. “The issue regarding the Dead Sea is very serious. Indeed, in a region where hardly anyone can agree with anyone about anything, the governments of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement to save the Dead Sea, so things should start to turn around now,” comments Marriott’s Nimr. Back in the capital city and many hotels are beginning to see developments in the MICE and business sector, as companies use Jordan, and in particular Amman, as a business stopover or increasingly as a location for incentives. Indeed, the MICE market is booming in the Middle East — most notably in Dubai — but with Jordan being regarded as an up and coming place for tourism, the business sector is invariably growing alongside this. For instance, the Four Seasons Hotel in Amman is extending its existing business centre in order to cope with the growing demand from business clients. “The corporate business market is increasing month after month, due to the number of investments scheduled for the Kingdom,” comments Shadi Omeish, director of sales and marketing, Four Seasons Hotel Amman. The increase in the MICE market is in part due to companies seeing Jordan as an ideal location to hold events, but more particularly because of the number of international forums that are taking place in the Kingdom. For instance, in September this year, the 2005 World Culture Forum was held at the King Hussein Convention Centre at the Dead Sea resort. And earlier this year, in May, the 2005 World Economic Forum was also held at the King Hussein Convention Centre for a third year running. These two major global events look set to propel the country as an ideal place to hold large events, whether on an international or a regional scale. Additionally, the Jordanian Inbound Tourism Association (JITA) has also launched an online MICE directory, www.micejordan.com, in order to boost business tourism to the country. Targeting local tourism stakeholders, tour operators and hoteliers will be able to provide as much information on the web site as they like about the MICE services they offer, as well as who to contact about the staging of MICE activities all over the country. The launch of the web site will link local tourism stakeholders with their international counterparts, in order to generate business leads and help international companies to come to the Kingdom to hold meetings. With the hotels increasing their business centres, and JITA’s online MICE directory, Jordan is set to become a regional hub for business meetings and events. And with its eco-tourism drive and plans for more hotels and five-star spa resorts, Jordan looks set to challenge regional players as an up and coming tourist hotspot.||**||

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