Reaching east, reaching west

The Jerash Festival will see live performances in Jordan this summer

EVEN as Jordan sees a tremendous growth in traffic from Spain, the UK and the US, it is now looking at newer markets: India and China top its wishlist, but perhaps unsurprisingly, it will begin marketing activities in Latin America this year.

Total tourist arrivals for 2005 were 5.8 million, from the Arab world, Europe, Asia and Africa. Munir Y Nassar, Jordan’s minister of tourism and antiquities, updates TTN on the country’s execution of its tourism action plan, and quells the antiquities debate. Excerpts from an interview:

How has Jordan recovered from the November 9 attacks, what efforts are being put forward to rejuvenate the industry?
Yes we have been negatively affected after the November 9 bombings. However, these effects have been short lived and we have seen a growth reaching back to the levels that we were expecting from 2006. The statistics for the first two months of 2006 show an increase of 27.7 per cent in the number of tourists who came on a package visit to Jordan, with numbers increasing from 38,482 during the first two months of 2005 to 49,151 during the same period in 2006.

What are the security measures that have been undertaken by Jordan after the attacks?
The security has been tightened at all tourist venues, and although security has always been present on tourism and archeological sites, it was never bold and had always taken a discrete form. However, after the events, these security measures became more prominent. Earlier, visitors would get the wrong impression seeing security people walking around, now it makes them feel safer. But we’re going back to a more discreet security now.

How has tourism contributed to Jordan’s economic development?
For the first time, tourism revenues in the year 2005 reached 1021 million dinars ($1440) and directly employed over 29,000 people. We estimate that total tourism employment will reach 90,000 people (directly or indirectly). So tourism is a major component of our economy that generates a lot of foreign currency. But the most important thing is that the government is looking at tourism to generate job opportunities in both the short and long terms.

How is Jordan promoting its product internationally?
For the last 10 years we have been relying primarily on the efforts of the Jordan Tourism Board which has been taking charge of promotional activities around the world. In addition, tour operators, travel agents and other suppliers are all doing their own marketing to attract foreign visitors. It’s the JTB that is responsible for the growth in tourism.

Projections for 2006?
For 2006, we hope tourism revenues will reach 1.15 billion dinars and we hope to increase the average length of tourist stay from five nights last year, to between 5.3 and 5.4 nights this year. This will be a challenge but we are giving it the best we can to try and make people stay longer. We are also looking at growing the direct employment in the sector by at least 12-15 per cent in 2006.

What promotional projects have you lined up for the summer?
We are planning to have several street festivals this summer. Last year’s event in Sweifieh will be on a bigger scale this year. Another will take place in the Shmeisani, and a third location will be finalized soon. We also have the Jara market, an event that has already started and will continue all summer, which promotes old Amman and resembles European flea markets. The Jerash festival is in its 25th year, with major performances scheduled, we’ve already signed on the Lebanese singer Majeda Al Roumi.

We know that Jordan’s King Abdullah has been the prime initiator of the national tourism industry, where is the government at in terms of its application?
His Majesty launched the national tourism strategy in May 2004. It was adopted by the government in September of the same year, and has become the guiding light for the industry as a whole, including the government and private sector. We will soon launch a section to spearhead the development of human resources. Having said that, the JTB remains responsible for marketing, while the ministry will continue to take care of the legislative and institutional reform.
We are also setting up a Tourism Development Corporation (TDC) along the same lines as the Aqaba development corporation. It will be responsible for product development, focusing on tour products as well as coming up with new ideas and locations, and encouraging the private sector to open up new restaurants and amusement parks. The TDC will also help the private sector in enhancing current products.
I would like to point out that its role has been misunderstood because many think that the idea behind it is to turn all our antiquities to the private sector, and this is something that will never happen. Our antiquities will always be preserved for the entire world and we consider ourselves as custodians for the world. What we will do is adopt a private sector mentality in terms of managing it.

How do you see the future of Jordan’s tourism industry?
Our goals include achieving a tourism revenue of 1.7 billion dinars and creating at least 50,000 additional jobs by 2010. I also see us developing the Dead Sea as a major standalone destination, while Aqaba will become the Monte Carlo of the Red Sea. With all the new upscale projects and services, Aqaba will cater to the high-end and MICE markets.

Jordan’s peak season for incoming tourists is during the spring (April/ May) and October. How does this spring compare with last year?
We are well on track to exceed last year’s results. We are currently seeing a tremendous growth from the Spanish, British and US markets. This growth can be attributed to two main factors: the JTB’s efforts in the US and UK, and more recently in Spain, and the the fact that people are not as scared of our region as they were in the past. People now look at Jordan with a clear idea of where it is, what it stands for and how safe it is despite of what happened in November. And maybe because of what happened in November, other countries that have been a victim of terror such as the US, UK, Spain and France, now look at us as if we have joined their club. Moreover, since we are now all victims of terror, the idea of terror is not one that is related only to the Middle East anymore.

How does Jordan’s tourism industry compare with such neighbours as Egypt and Lebanon?
Lebanon has done an outstanding job in attracting Arab visitors and I am one of the people who, when given the time and chance, goes to Beirut for the weekend. They have elevated their industry to a level that is the envy of many countries. Egypt has also made an outstanding turnaround since the problems they faced in Luxor and other places several years ago. Both these, like Dubai, have realized and accepted the fact that marketing is the one overall driving factor that determines whether you succeed in creating a  tourism destination or not. You can build an image out of nothing in people’s minds if you have the right marketing and support it with the right budget.
Unfortunately, we have not been very lucky in the past couple of years in that aspect due to budget constraints, since the government is determined to keep the budget deficit as low as possible so as not to go above international norms. By 2007 and beyond, hopefully, the tourism industry would have generated enough revenue to encourage the government to acknowledge the results and as a result, allocate more funds for marketing.

What are your long term tourism goals?
Strategically we will always deal with the Arab market as our prime market. Our other main markets include the UK and Spain, which are currently performing really well.
We want to open up to the new markets in East Asia, specifically India and China. We are seeing large numbers of Koreans and Thai tourists visiting Jordan this year. As the economic development of south East Asia has resulted in a new, growing middle class that has the money and are anxious to travel, we would like to capitalize on this market and introduce Jordan as an attractive destination. We also want to pursue the Latin American market where we will be starting moderately this year.

How does Jordan seek to diversify the tourist product offering?
We have pinpointed five niche markets that we want to go after and the tourism strategy is built on those markets. These include cultural tourism where we have a tremendous comparative and competitive advantage. The MICE business which we are now looking into growing is currently centered around the Dead Sea area. We will also have a major conference facility in Amman in a about two and a half years and by 2009, we will have a substantial one in Aqaba within the Saraya project, to accommodate up to 3000 people. We are also looking at adventure and religious tourism products, while going after new regions.

What is the progress on the ecological front?
The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature is doing an outstanding job by developing a management system for the parks and the reserves they are currently running. They will also manage the Dead Sea panorama, due to open imminently. We also rely on them to set standards for eco-tourism. Our ultimate goal is to make sure Jordan’s natural beauty remains as it is without being negatively affected negatively by tourism.

Focus Jordan
by Maysa Zureikat