Jordan – a country beyond expectations…
With a history spanning more than two millennia, Jordan is an explorers' delight. Marcelle Nethersole met Nayef H Al-Fayez, from the Jordan Tourism Board, to look at the country's diversity and explain how tourists and business travellers can enjoy this jewel in the Middle East that is often, mistakenly, thought of as a danger zone.
Dive in the Red Sea and see its beautiful underwater life; float in the
Nestling between Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria, Jordan certainly lies in a region known for its political turmoil and religious conflicts. But, as the Jordanians themselves will tell you, this is “a safe country”, “a quiet land”, and travellers have already started to put it on their list of ‘must go to’ destinations.
“We are an oasis of stability and tranquillity; Jordan is a very safe country,” said Nayef H Al-Fayez, managing director of the Jordan Tourism Board.
“Because we’re in a turbulent region tourists have been put off the area so we try to fix the misconception of the security and stability issue. If you look at the history, Jordan has always maintained good relations with its neighbours and all countries throughout the world.”
And, certainly, Jordan is starting to see tourists arrive in droves.
“Today tourism is one of the main pillars of the Jordanian economy,” said Al-Fayez. “It is the second largest contributor to our GDP – around 14.7% of the total for 2008. Last year we were almost at three billion dollars from the tourism industry.
“It is a sector which has been growing in the last ten years. I would say 50% of tourists are from the Arab region and the rest are mainly from Europe and North America. Jordan is starting to see an influx of all nationalities, though, and of all ages too.”
This is not surprising. The country can be traversed from top to bottom in six hours and certainly packs in a lot. Al-Fayez said: “We have a diverse product. A tourist needs at least two weeks to discover Jordan as there is so much to do.”
The Jordan Tourism Board has broken down tours into sections to suit everyone. These include: history & culture, religion & faith, fun & adventure, eco & nature and leisure and wellness. All of these things can, of course, be combined but it’s a great guide to plan your trip in the time you have.
Jordan is an open-air museum, a country that wherever you go you will find history and culture, from north to south to east to west, in the desert, in the mountains, in the sea, in the capital, Amman, itself. “We have identified our product according to the national tourism strategy, which was put together in 2004,” explained Al-Fayez.
The Tourism Board is proving to be a successful public-private partnership, involving airlines, hotels, tour operators and private investors in its planning and promotion of the country.
“Whatever a tourist is looking for, we can accommodate,” said Al-Fayez. “For instance, for many tourists it’s the archaeological sites that prove to be popular and our history & culture guide offers a complete historical insight. Many people already know of the ancient city of Petra, which is one of our national treasures and one of the world’s seven wonders, and for many years we have had visitors to Petra. But, for us, it is just a gateway.
“Jordan played a major role in the Roman, Biblical and early Islamic and Crusader periods and the ancient city of Jerash is proving to be of great interest to travellers. It is the best-preserved Roman city outside of Rome and also has the only enactment of real gladiator life.
“Another place of interest is the ancient town of Madaba, which was resettled by Christian Arab tribes from the Karak region in the 19th century. Today it is referred to as ‘the City of Mosaics’ and is home to the huge sixth century Byzantine mosaic map in the Greek Orthodox church of St George, where two million brightly coloured stones depict Jerusalem and other holy sights.”
Religion plays a big part in Jordan’s history. Earlier this year Pope Benedict XVI visited the reputed site of the baptism of Jesus Christ at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan and looked over the Holy Land toward Jerusalem from the top of Mount Nebo, a permanent memorial to Moses who is believed to have ended his days in one of the valleys below.
Al-Fayez said: “People think only the old city of Jerusalem and surrounding areas represent the holy sites but, actually, Jordan is part of the Holy Land and, through the words of Abraham, Job and Moses, the Bible’s Old Testament records show that it is in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan that God first manifested himself to man. Jesus travelled, taught and healed the sick throughout the area before he started towards Jerusalem.”
Jordan is home to some of the world’s earliest churches, including the remains of what is believed to be the oldest purpose-built church in the world, located in Aqaba.
The Red Sea town of Aqaba has some of the best sandy beaches in the region. “The Red Sea is renowned for excellent diving and snorkelling as its waters are pristine and you will find beautiful coral reefs and vast marine life,” said Al-Fayez.
Another place for thrill seekers is Wadi Rum. “This is a breathtaking location and has Jordan’s largest and most stunning desert landscapes. Jordanians refer to it as ‘The Valley of the Moon’ and it’s very popular to camp here and take part in a lot of outdoor activities like trekking and hiking. It’s a serious challenge for mountaineers,” said Al-Fayez. It is also the setting for the 1962 film epic Lawrence of Arabia.
Then there is the world-famous Dead Sea, the largest natural spa on earth, where you will be amazed you can’t sink. No marine life is able to live in such salty water; it is actually six times saltier than the ocean and, at more than 400 metres (1,312 ft.) below sea level, it is the lowest point on the face of the earth. The Dead Sea is also believed to be the site of five Biblical cities – Sodom, Zoar, Zeboiim, Gomorrah and Admah. Today, however, it’s just peaceful water and a top holiday destination for the locals; not surprising as it enjoys dramatic and stunning landscape with mountains to the east and the rolling hills of Jerusalem to the west. Try cleansing your skin with the natural minerals of the Dead Sea mud; it feels gooey and doesn’t smell great but you’ll feel fabulous after you scrub it off.
If you travel to the city of
Jordan is also deeply involved with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature and has many ecological treasures. “We have set up several large nature reserves that are professionally run in order to minimize negative impacts on the natural habitats and rare species of Jordan’s flora and fauna,” explained Al-Fayez. “These include Wadi Rum, Dana, Mujib Nature Reserve and Shawmari Wildlife Reserve.”
With so much to do and see, is there any time to feel in competition with neighbouring Egypt, a popular tourist spot?
“Not at all,” said Al-Fayez. “We have our own product. We’re a diverse country and a unique one. We are a very hospitable friendly nation too, with great food – both Jordanian and international. And we’re also an easy country to reach. We have two airports in
“Queen Alia Airport’s expansion means we can expect up to nine million people. We hope to attract more carriers as that will, in turn, attract more tourists. We have a lot of VIP travellers at the airports, too, particularly at Aqaba due to its location by the Red Sea. It’s also close to Petra, which makes it attractive.”
Jordan is a very popular spot for business travellers and the tourist board has made sure they leave with a smile. Al-Fayez explained: “We have always had lot of business visitors to Jordan with most business being between Amman and the Dead Sea. We have a large conference centre called The King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Centre, which sits on the shore of the Dead Sea, 45 kilometres from Amman. We have hosted the World Economy Forum at this centre five times now. It caters for major conferences and events and has state-of-the-art high-tech equipment. For the World Economy Forum to be hosted here for the fifth time is testimony to the calibre of the facility and that of the Jordanian people. Also, what other country can offer high quality facilities then, after a hard day, you can go and float in the Dead Sea and de-stress?”
The capital, Amman, is also a wonderful place to visit, whether as a tourist or while on business. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, with a history that dates back to 8,000BC.
“Amman has the best weather during summer as it’s on high mountains so there is a fresh, cool breeze. It’s very much a family location, great for shopping, enjoying festivals, parks, and there are wonderful restaurants of all cuisines,” said Al-Fayez.
There are also some world-class hotels used for both tourists and business travellers with first-class conference and leisure facilities. Typical is the five-star Marriott Amman, which currently receives 65% of business guests, with the remainder being tourists. There are two other Marriott hotels in Jordan based in Petra and by the Dead Sea and there are plans for a Marriott in Aqaba.
Jordan certainly is a land of surprises. For example, it has vineyards where wine has been made for more than 2,000 years. Wine in a Moslem country? But that’s Jordan and its inordinate sense of liberal opportunity.
“Jordan does surprise many visitors,” laughed Al-Fayez. “I often say it ‘takes you beyond’ but people ask ‘beyond what’? We leave it for the people to decide from their experience. Jordan certainly provides you with an experience beyond your expectations, that, I promise you.”