Friday, 28 April 2017

JORDAN: Golden Triangle Of Tourism,Wadi Rum, Petra And Aqaba Most Affected By Drop In Tourist Arrivals

The drop in tourists is most noticeable in what is known as Jordan's 'golden triangle' of tourism: the sites of Wadi Rum, Petra and Aqaba.

Shaker al-Onaizi started his career in tourism at the age of five by selling postcards to tourists who flocked to the desert expanse of Wadi Rum in southern Jordan.

Now the 24-year-old, like tens of thousands of other Jordanians who rely on tourism for their living, is facing his leanest year. Campsites are empty, and his 4x4 pick-up truck, which once took dozens of visitors on guided tours each day, sits idle.

"If there are tourists, we work and eat. If not, we sleep," Onaizi said as he gazed across the reddish desert.

While tourism in Jordan has been on the decline since the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprisings four years ago, it has witnessed its sharpest drop in 2015, with the number of tourists in the first four months of the year down 40 percent from 2014.

The tourism sector makes up 13 percent of Jordan's gross domestic product, and provides jobs in hotels and resorts for around 49,000 people. This figure excludes members of local communities - Bedouins in Petra and Onaizi in Rum - whose livelihoods are based on tourism.

Officials and experts in the sector attribute the decline to Jordan's prominent role in the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). "We are paying a tax for being in the middle of an inflamed region," said Abul Razaq Arabiat, the head of Jordan's Tourism Board.

In December, ISIL downed a Jordanian jet and captured its pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, in the Syrian city of Raqqa. In February, ISIL released a video showing the pilot being burned alive, sparking angry protests across Jordan calling for revenge and increased Jordanian air strikes against the group in Syria.

Tourism industry leaders say the worldwide publicity created by these events scared off thousands of tourists, prompting tour groups to cancel their bookings to the kingdom.

"The pilot crisis created a perception that Jordan is not safe," said Lina Khalid, director of the Jordan Inbound Tour Operators Association.

The capture of the pilot happened at around the same time as the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, which Khalid believes also caused thousands of cancellations.

Many French tourists were worried by demonstrations against the cartoons that took place in Jordan,she said

Late last year and early this year, the US and French embassies in Jordan issued travel warnings, asking their citizens to be cautious and to stay away from malls and shopping centres in the country. The travel warnings have "discouraged many Westerners" from visiting Jordan, according to Arabiat.

The drop in tourists is most noticeable in what is known as Jordan's "golden triangle" of tourism: the sites of Wadi Rum, Petra, and Aqaba.

According to Khalid, occupancy of hotels in the region has not exceeded 20 percent so far this year, whereas normally occupancy rates can reach 90-95 percent.

The ancient city of Petra is nearly empty; on one day in early June, just a few dozen tourists wandered its cavernous gorges and rock-carved temples. Out of desperation, children clung to the occasional visitor who passed by, trying to sell them postcards.

Bedouin men and women advertised 50-percent-off sales on silver and antiques, while young men strolled back and forth, treading the same dusty paths with their horses and camels, trying to convince the handful of visitors to take a guided tour.

In Petra alone, 10 hotels have been reported closed this year due to mounting losses, and many have reduced their staff, leaving hundreds of residents jobless.

In Rum village, which has a population of roughly 1,300, people rely mainly on tourism as a source of income, while others work in the military or herd animals.

Onaizi, the tour guide, who dropped out of school at the age of 14 to help his father open one of the area's first campsites, said that unless the industry rebounds soon, he and many of his peers will abandon the sector.

"I have been engaged for a year and a half, and I do not know how long it will take me to build my future home," said Onaizi. In previous years, his camp used to host up to 30 or 40 people a night; now, barely a handful trickle in each week.

In recent weeks, the Jordanian government announced that it was taking measures and adopting an "emergency plan" to address the challenges facing the country's tourism sector.

The measures include waiving the $56 visa fee for visitors staying in the country for a minimum of two consecutive nights, and introducing a new, $100 "all-inclusive" pass for the country's most famous tourist sites, such as Petra, Jerash, and the site where Jesus is believed to have been baptised. Currently, the entry fee to Petra alone is $70.

Jordan's Ministry of Tourism avoids giving clarifications.

But it remains to be seen whether these measures will be enough to counter potential tourists' security concerns.

"Instability around us will remain our biggest challenge," Arabiat said. "Until the regional turmoil calms down, we have to tell the world that Jordan is safe."

Standing on a hill overlooking the flat green plains that stretch between the northern Jordanian town of Ramtha and the Syrian border, Ahmad Abu Sarhan laments the devastating consequences of the Syrian war on his hometown.

"Here, we are living in a state of war - without war," said Abu Sarhan, a 43-year-old shopkeeper.

Once known as the "Sinbads" of Jordan due to their relentless trade and ability to find commercial opportunities abroad, residents of Ramtha, 90km north of Amman, relied on the ancient route to Syria as their lifeline, counting on trade and transport between the two countries for income.

But ever since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, thousands of Ramtha families have lost their livelihoods, and now struggle to put food on the table. "Our war is economic. We are fighting to feed our children," Abu Sarhan said.

The final nail in Ramtha's economic coffin was the closure of the Jaber-Nassib border crossing after Syrian rebel groups seized it on April 4. Amid the chaos on the Syrian side, armed fighters and civilians reportedly looted the Syrian-Jordanian free zone, with losses estimated at 100 million Jordanian dinars ($140m).

"Overnight, I lost all my business and my staff lost their jobs," said Abdullah Abu Aqoolah, whose car dealership was looted. After boasting a display of 388 cars, he has only six left to his name now.

Nabil Rumman, the manager of Jordan's free zones, estimates that some 7,000 Jordanians - working in logistics, transport and other services - have lost their jobs since the Jaber-Nassib border closure.

The majority of those laid off were from Ramtha, cutting the last sources of income for the border town, while others hailed from the northern Jordanian towns of Irbid and Mafraq, which are also housing an influx of more than 200,000 Syrian refugees.

"It is a blow for the Jordanian economy, but it is the work force that has been hit hardest," Rumman said. Heavy items such as wood and construction equipment survived the looting and have been transferred to the Zarqa Free Zone, according to Rumman.

But for the residents of Ramtha, this was just the latest, and most devastating, of a series of attacks that have gradually taken away their livelihoods.

In 2011, Jordanian authorities closed the Deraa-Ramtha border crossing, a move that cost 3,500 taxi drivers their jobs, according to residents and community leaders. It also gradually blocked the flow of goods such as cotton, food and clothing from Syria to Ramtha's wholesale merchants.

"The economy in Ramtha was on life support for the past three years, but the latest closure has completely killed it," said Abdul Salam Thunibat, head of Ramtha's Chamber of Commerce. The number of active merchants in the border town registered with the chamber declined from 6,500 in 2010, to 1,000 in 2015, according to Thunibat.

"They cannot afford to pay rent, taxes, and salaries when there are no goods coming in," Thunibat said, adding that some merchants have turned to Turkey and China to import from, shouldering higher transportation costs.

By midday in Ramtha, most shops remain shuttered, with no local demand to encourage them to open. Even the local butcher offers his customers an economic choice between "fresh meat" or days-old "leftovers", due to declining demand and purchasing power.

The Syrian war has not only cut off the border town's lifeline. It has also brought an influx of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, who have strained the local infrastructure in Ramtha and flooded the labour force with cheap, skilled labour that out-price Jordanian workers.

Rihab Krasneh, 37, shut down her 15-year-old hair salon in Ramtha after her customers turned to Syrian hairstylists who offered half-price services in their own homes. "They do not pay for rent or taxes, so whatever they earn is profit," Krasneh said.

Locals blame the Jordanian government for not doing enough to create job opportunities or improve the services and infrastructure that have been burdened by the Syrian crisis. Before the Syrian war, Ramtha's population stood at 90,000. With the influx of refugees, it has ballooned to 160,000, according to Ibraheem Saqqar, head of Ramtha's municipality.

The Jordanian government received $216m in aid to help the country cope with the pressure placed on them by the Syrian crisis. But Ramtha locals say the government has not properly allocated the funds. "We still have only one hospital. No more schools have been built, and no job opportunities were created with this aid money they talk about," Saqqar said.

The only noteworthy addition to the town has been the establishment of two new cemeteries donated by a local charity, after the war raging a few kilometres away filled up Ramtha's burial plots.

The only "breathing space for families", a community garden known as King Abdullah Gardens, was long ago converted into a camp for Syrian refugees.

Jordanian officials, however, say that aid money is not sufficient to solve the problems caused by the Syrian crisis.

With Jordanian border towns suffering economically and coping with a doubling of the population, they say their needs are too great and the donations too few. With so much need, they say it is difficult to know where to allocate the limited funds.

"Regardless of how much you do, it is not going to have an impact because the sheer numbers of refugees are enormous," Hassan Assaf, governor of Irbid,said. "If I have a million dinars, will it be enough to build a school, hospital, or fix streets?"

Meanwhile, the sounds of the Syrian war, which has killed 210,000 and displaced 3.7 million Syrians, continue to echo in Ramtha.

Every night, the crack of gunfire and the low rumble of shelling from Syria interrupts their sleep, while the occasional mortar shell falls on Jordanian soil. Luckily, the errant mortars have caused no casualties, but several Ramtha residents have been wounded over the past four years.

And lately, pictures of civilians and armed groups looting the free zones have been circulating over mobile phones. To protect their children from the echoes of war, Abu Sarhan and his wife used to tell them that the sounds of shelling were fireworks from celebrations.

But now as the children "go to school with Syrian children who tell them horrific stories about the shelling", the war has crept into their home as well.