JUSTINA OKPANKU recently visited Jordan’s most stunning sites and fabled ancient city of Petra. She hereby reports how Jordan is repackaging her tourism strategy having rebuilt her product.
“If you visit Jordan, you will lose 10 years of your age. The Dead Sea products, temperature, olive and good food will help you… Just float in the Dead Sea,” Managing Director, Jordan Tourist Board, Dr. Abed Al Razzaq Arabiyat said this at an event to welcome the Nigeria media comprising Aviation and Travel journalists who were on a Familiarisation visit to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, recently.
He knew we took the information (hype) with a pinch of salt. He asked us to relax while fielding questions that border on pilgrimage, visa facilitation, tourism industry and security concerns.
Medical tourism is flourishing in that region. Jordan medical tourism is considered one of the best in the Middle East. It ranks seventh in the world. “We have international health care accreditation, experienced medical professionals, the latest medical technology and best equipment in the region. The demand from tourists is expanding because of cost when compared to other wellness destinations such as UK, India and Thailand,” said Arabiyat. “The best natural treatment in the world is in Jordan. People with skin diseases come to Jordan to receive treatment. God has helped us; it is our oil. Tourism contributes 13 to 14 per cent to Jordan’s GDP,” he added.
Recording tens of millions of visitors annually, the kingdom is one of the world’s leading tourism destinations. Apart from agriculture, the tourism industry is the lifeblood of that economy.
We mingled with people of different nationals: Americans, Chinese, French and Germans, who were milling around places of attractions and trying to enjoy themselves.
“Jordan is full of discoveries,” an excited woman, who introduced herself as Jeane from France, told this reporter at Petra. Her husband added that “there are nice architecture and what makes the tourist happy.” The joy is infectious.
A publisher of a Travel Magazine in Nigeria posted on his Facebook wall about his experience to Jordan: “Today, March 18, 2014, I fulfilled two of my desires: A spiritual fulfillment of the Dead Sea bath and a professional desire to visit Petra, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.”
He is not alone. The media, travel portals and social media have been busy with stories of unique travel experiences of Travel and Aviation journalists who were also on the Familiarisation trip to Jordan. In fact, we have not stopped talking about the special memories even though some of us are frequent travellers. There’s so much to see, eat and do in a relaxed atmosphere. As I write this, one of us who obviously could not have enough of Jordan, hinted to me that he is making plans to visit Jordan again with his family. I also have a sense of fulfillment.
I remember a good friend tried to discourage me when I announced my intention to travel to Jordan mid-March. She cleared her throat very well, and without mincing words asked what in God’s name I was going to do in Jordan. Even though she is widely travelled, she had difficulty trying to know the geographical location of that country. In this clime, there is scanty information about Jordan, even though we are in the age of information technology. Most people rely more on friends and family for information in travel.
She said, “Oh! You are going to see River Jordan in Israel.” I corrected. I will be travelling to Jordan, to see one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and the Baptism Site where Jesus Christ was baptised… She interrupted and said, “That means it must be close to Syria and Egypt.”
Apparently, Jordan is not well known to people here. That’s the reason why the traffic on Lagos-Amman route is not as busy compared to Dubai. Let’s do statistics. Dubai, United Arab Emirates, welcomed over 500, 000 Nigerians in 2013, some of whom are traders, while Jordan, also an Arab country, was said to have received only 400 overnight visitors rom Nigeria even though the latter perhaps has more to offer .
On popularity, Jordan is hardly known by the Nigerian travellers. I don’t think it is because of the problem of the Middle East. This is changing. Royal Jordanian (RJ) Airlines, the national flag carrier of Jordan, launched a twice weekly service between Amman and Lagos, Nigeria, and also Accra, Ghana, last July. Passengers are transiting via Queen Alia International Airport on their way to London and other European countries as well as Jeddah, Madina Munawarah, Dubai, Beirut and Delhi.
The company operates the route (Amman-Lagos-Accra-Lagos-Amman) twice weekly with its wide-bodied, 280-seat Airbus A330s, on Wednesdays and Fridays.
It is a new market. Jordanian authorities used to promote Jordan as a destination to European countries. Royal Jordanian said last Wednesday that it plans to suspend flights to a number of cities this year after passenger numbers declined. According to Royal Jordanian’s operating plan this year, the airline decided to halt operations to Alexandria in April and Colombo and Milan in May.
The Jordanian officials said they are following the advice of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) to go to emerging markets of Africa and Asia. They have seen the huge potential in Nigeria and they are eager to come, to introduce their people to our operators, to their Nigerian counterparts.
Arriving Queen Alia International Airport
Royal Jordanian flight, RJ 522, touched down at Queen Alia International Airport, Amman, Jordan at 7:00 AM on Saturday March 15, 2014, as expected. The five hours or so non-stop flight from Lagos the previous day was very smooth. I did not expect less from an airline which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and a member of Oneworld. My RJ experience can favourably be compared to my British Airways, Emirates, Cathay Pacific travel experience. Food was good, in-flight entertainment was also pleasing. I missed socks when it started getting chilly onboard. But the crew ensured tea and coffee got to those that wanted them to keep warm.
On arrival, I looked out through the window with curiosity. The first time visitor to any country is curious to see the airport vicinity. Surprisingly, the weather was bad (I understand March is the best time to visit Jordan) yet I could not see much from afar apart from aircraft in their hangar. The crew advised passengers to remain seated until the pilot had parked the plane.
Then, I noticed my colleagues were stretching their necks trying to look through the window. We (Other Aviation and Travel journalists from Nigeria and I were on ‘fact-finding mission’ (laughs), thanks to Jordan Tourist Board. I could not read the expression on their faces. We took our bags from the overhead cabin and disembarked from the plane, when we were instructed to do so. It is a worldwide aviation practice. The crew was on hand to bid us ‘goodbye’.
We boarded the airport shuttle bus that took us to the airport terminal via baggage reclaims. I noticed that most of the people on the flight were transiting. What quickly came to my mind was what my colleague in Tribune Newspaper, Mr. Wale Ojo Lanre said about Royal Jordanian Airline when he travelled on Lagos-Amman-Amsterdam route. Apart from pricing (fares), which he said was very good; he described his experience with a string of superlatives, in respect of seamless connection, comfort and all that.
After going through immigration checks, we were received by a representative from our host before we drove through the city. Amman is a modern city, no doubt, but its population is divided markedly between two global religions. While some of are Muslims, a quite many are Christians (some of them practise Orthodox and Coptic Christianity). But Saturday, all noticed, was a day full of life every nook and cranny of the country.
Before the trip, I read on the Internet that three Spanish tourists died in Jordan recently. I had this at the back of my mind. A journalist on the trip also expressed his fears about travelling to that region during our first meeting with the general sales agent (GSA) to Royal Jordanian, Ela Travel & Tour, but the Managing Director of the company, Mr. Youssef, tried his best to explain, likening the Middle East problem to the Nigerian situation in which some people outside world do not understand Lagos is many hundreds of kilometers away from the security-challenged North East Nigeria.
We were trying to compare the Kingdom to Nigeria when a man parked his car without locking it near a popular mall downtown Amman. People go about their businesses without caring a hoot about security. But scanning equipments are common sights in malls and major hotels.
From all indications, Jordan is regarded as “safe haven” especially for countries in the region. Jordan is surrounded by troubled countries, yet Jordan is a safe country. Arabiyat said it is because of the wisdom of “our leadership, our government and the high education of our people. We know some countries have some political problems. Adding: “Jordan will remain the way to peace as usual and the international respect for our leadership and the Jordanian. You can see that the people who are searching for safety are coming to Jordan”.
Jordan, he said, will not close its border to people who seek peace because of its hospitality, from Lebanon, Iraq to Syria. At present, 1.7 million Syrian refugees are in Jordan.
It is also gathered that all international news and the media are broadcasting from Jordan. “This place is safe and that’s why they are based in Jordan. Yes, the problems you talked about may have affected tourism to Jordan because people are not aware that Jordan is a safe haven. But with your visit, you see by yourself the safety, the joy, the unique and authentic experience that you have in Jordan and you convey this message. And the media will tell the truth and convey this message that Jordan is safe,” Jordan tourism chief said.
What makes Jordan tick?
At the arrival hall of the Amman Airport, a small beautiful billboard welcomes a visitor to the “Home of Hidden Treasures.” Indeed, Jordan boasts many tourist attractions and some of them are unique.
Jordan is home to some of the oldest olive trees, which date back to Biblical times when oil was used for food, medicine and lamps. The unique oil, from trees planted in the Terra Rossa, is delicious eaten with freshly baked bread and drizzled over salads, Greek yoghurt and also used to make sauces as well as bring life to grilled vegetables, fish and chicken.
Jordan is said to boast ideal travel opportunities for every type of visitor, no matter their personality or preferences. History buffs should be sure to stop at Jerash and Petra, adventure tourists should scale the red cliff faces of Wadi Rum, religious tourists should ascend Mount Nebo and share the view that Moses held, and those seeking a restorative experience should find themselves at one of any number of world class beachside spas.
Jordan is known for the hospitality of its people. We were warned not to bother ourselves if they did not smile at us, because it did not mean they were not happy with us. The Egyptian workers especially in the tourism industry are more friendly than other nationals there; they would leave whatever they were doing to greet a visitor warmly, saying “We are Africans and we are one”. Sinai is just three hours’ drive from Jordan.
Religious tourism campaign
Pilgrimage or religious tourism is big business and extremely competitive in the Middle East. Both Christians and Muslims already know where to go year round. In the past, Jordan’s promotion campaigns might have been missing some focus in this niche market. It was only after the Kingdom took the bull by the horns that benefits started trickling down to the local communities, businesses which rely on the tourism industry, and everybody.
In 2013, the Kingdom welcomed 3.5 million tourists. Not to mention tourists who visited Israel first before travelling by road to Jordan (Jordan tourism officials said they would like religious tourists to head straight to Jordan as the Kingdom’s 85 per cent of the attractions are in Jordan.
During a prolonged and grinding recession, the World Travel and Tourism Council, stated that the travel industry was one of the few sectors to bounce back early and help buoy the global economy. Last year, the industry accounted for 9.5 per cent of the global economy (nearly $7 trillion) and employed 266 million people, about nine per cent of the global work force.
Jordan is promoting religious tourism for both Muslims and Christians. Jordan’s tourism chief stated that Christianity originated from Jordan, urging Nigerians to visit. They assured that they will facilitate visas and eliminate restriction. Already, they are working together with Nigerian High Commissioner to Jordan and Jordan’s Minister of Interior to succeed.
To boost promotion of the Holy sites, the authorities produced maps and other promotional materials, having identified 34 sites in Jordan which have a story with Jesus.
They also made concerted efforts aimed at building stronger relationships with Christian pilgrims. Business gurus always say if you create demand, customers will come. This is clearly evident in the case of Jordan which has had to grapple with two very strong competitors in that region. Today, Jordan tourism product is very powerful. Baptism Site, Bethany, beyond Jordan where Jesus Christ was baptised, for example, has become a must-see attraction. Most of the Christians visit there for their baptism.
No wonder, Pope Francis visited and recognised Jordan Baptism Site as the official site of Baptism site of Jesus Christ. Some churches have started building structures on the land and in Bethany, beyond Jordan.
They will promote it more. Apart from enhancing the sector, including access to special Fam (familiarisation) trip opportunities, Jordan has released a new strategy. The Kingdom plans to invite fifteen hundred church leaders from around the world to identify with the 34 sites in Jordan mentioned during the Biblical times. The Pope’s visit must have assisted in the focus on religion. The tourism chieftain said: “A lot of church leaders and priests will be invited to educate and to be aware of what we have. The Nigerian market is very important to Jordan. We have the attractions and the infrastructure. The Pope has already visited the Baptism Site. I think the Vatican always emphasises visits to religious sites. We need to work heavily to attract more tourists.”
Best places to go in Jordan
One of the greatest joys of a tourist visiting a destination that has diverse attractions is when they are compact. You are able to experience two, three attractions situated in the same place within a day. That is not the same for Jordan. Still, more and more tourists are travelling to Jordan to see what the church looks like in the early Christianity.
They also visit Greek orthodox church, Baptism Site, where Jesus was baptised, River Jordan; Mount Nebo where God showed Moses the promised land, Madiba also known as Mediba in the Bible (Deuteronomy Chapter 21), Dead Sea and amazing Petra, one of the new Seven Wonder of the world.
We enjoyed our visit to ancient Petra and the surrounding natural beauty. For me, Petra, the world famous rose-city is an achievement. The Publisher of ATQ Magazine, Mr. Ikechi Uko, who was also in our team said, “Petra is an exercise, the best gym in the world” having walked the one and a half hours’ attraction, taking great pictures. He suggested that Jordan Tourist Board should do well to issue certificate to visitors to Petra.
Guests, who could not walk back to the entrance, joined caravan or rode Arabian horses. Some visitors bought gifts made by local craftspeople. The experience was good. A colleague joked that words must have gone round that Petra will make a visitor lose weight. On Tuesday March 18, there were several other tour buses parked on our arrival. Tourists were locusts. We visited Aqaba. Aqaba is gorgeous – there’s just no other way to put it (more on Aqaba later).
The main attraction is Jordan River. A woman said aloud “Oh this is where Christ was baptised!” She squatted on the ground beside the small shallow coloured pool near the main river and started to pray. While in a prayer mood, others were scooping water into their containers gradually. Across the river, about 10 metres, some Israeli soldiers were standing sentry with guns. Jordan shares border with Israel and both countries have established structures at the Baptism Site to attract tourists.
Shopping: Jordan is like modern European cities with malls and shops everywhere. Visit CareFour and many malls in downtown Amman. Never worry the exchange rate, which stood at 1US$: JD1.4, you will get value for money. Jordanian stuffs are high quality. Check out the clothes, high quality cotton. This was exciting.
As one journalist put it, “As Nigerians (big spenders), we hit two malls in three hours. I shopped like I was on a speed dial until I ran out of hands to carry the bags. I have used up my eight available hands. I am excited by the trip to dip in the famous Dead Sea tomorrow.
Jordan has hotels. I think all the hotel chains have presence in Jordan. The country offers accommodation in a wide range of hotels, 3-Star, 4-Star and 5-Star. Red Sea Hotel & Spa offers healthy restaurant just like Basin Restaurant. In short, most of the restaurants are focusing on health foods such as fish, chicken, potato, olive, fruits and vegetables. The presentation is super.
The offerings include outdoor evening entertainment, food and WIFI. Not to mention time out floating in the Dead Sea water. A taxi driver said demand for Dead Sea is high because of wellness tourism. Shamik charges customers who want to visit the three hours or so journey US$50 from Amman to Dead Sea. He will have to wait for two hours for them before returning to Amman, the state capital.
One of the most popular hotels in Jordan is Regency Palace, a bed and breakfast facility with a difference. In most hotels in Jordan, services are built for a 5-Star experience.
Today’s travellers demand much more from their in-room entertainment. A 24/7 connectivity is the number one expectation among hotel guests and it’s a key driver of guest satisfaction. Amman hotels are not found wanting.
Last line: It is instructive that Jordan authorities are doing all it can to make the tourism industry to become the mainstay of its economy. It is gathered that 70 per cent of the budget of Jordan Tourist Board, the equivalent of our NTDC (the Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation) comes from government and 30 per cent from the private sector. Listen to this, unlike Nigeria, the kingdom has nothing to do with the appointment of the head of Jordan Tourist Board. There is no government interference; the General Assembly and Board of Directors manage tourism industry. And the difference is clear.