Sapped by continuing conflict in surrounding countries, Jordan’s tourism sector has seen better times. But the Kingdom’s Tourism Minister Nayef al-Fayez is leading an ambitious drive to encourage visitors to return.
By Elisa Oddone
In the new science fiction epic The Martian, which was partly shot among the otherworldly red dunes of Wadi Rum, NASA tries to bring back an astronaut stranded on Mars. Now Jordan is using the blockbuster to try to bring back tourists to the Kingdom that have been staying away because of continued regional unrest.
The film, starring Matt Damon, forms the centerpiece of a new marketing drive designed to promote the Kingdom’s battered tourism sector. Visitor numbers dropped 9 percent to some 3.8 million in the first nine months of the year compared to the same period in 2014. Revenues fell 8.8 percent to JD1.9 billion.
Along with the marketing campaign, the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Nayef al-Fayez is overseeing a raft of other proactive measures which he hopes will win back tourists’ trust and return visitor numbers to their pre-Arab Spring levels of 8 million a year.
What is the overall situation of the tourism industry in Jordan?
The current situation is challenging. Among the many things that happened in our region that negatively impacted our tourism industry, the recent escalation in regional turmoil was immediately felt throughout the sector.
The drop in foreign visitors was significant from the start of 2015 and continued until June. There were cancellations and people stopped booking trips to Jordan and were scared of coming to the country. At the same time, the Eurozone was grappling with its own challenges and currency devaluation, while the devaluation of Russia’s ruble also played a role in Jordan’s tourism slump. If the trend we saw at the beginning of the year continued, 2015’s tourism revenue would have ended up at least JD450 to JD500 million below what we saw in 2014. That’s why we urged the government to take action to stimulate the industry. But we already jumped into action during the Arab tourist season, as Jordanian expats were returning and GCC visitors were approaching. We immediately saw a reverse in the declining trend. Meanwhile, following the government’s approval of the marketing action plans we presented, we also started implementing other activities in different markets.
What have you been doing to attract foreign tourists?
The government approved our marketing activities with a JD37 million budget cap until next year. We started seeing a pay back during the summer. In June we were JD251 million below the previous year’s result, but in July we started our massive campaigns and their success saw us at JD197 million below. Our most recent numbers for September indicate that we are only at JD172 million below. We launched an international commercial campaign promoting Jordan as a tourist attraction, prompting an increase in arrivals during the summer months from Jordanian expats and other Arabs. At the same time, we launched a major online and offline campaign launch in French, British, and German markets with European tour operator partners. It included advertisements on TV channels, taxis, and billboards to reach consumers directly. There was also an arrangement at the beginning of the year before launching our campaign in which we invited bloggers and travel writers to come and write about Jordan. This was the second press trip of its kind in the past 12 months and its continuing success ensures that we will continue to hold them for the foreseeable future.
We are also constantly working with the Royal Film Commission to promote Jordan as a film destination and present the country in a different way. The Martian movie, released earlier this month and which heavily features Wadi Rum as Mars, is a fundamental part of our marketing strategy in the UK under the slogan “Jordan: literally out of this world.” Similar to the impact of other movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, this film will increase Jordan’s visibility around the world. Filming in Jordan is an industry within itself but it also helps promote the country’s sites while also sending a message of safety and stability. What we have been doing is to try and stem the worrying drop in tourists and get back on the right track to start growing again next year, but all the indications so far show results beyond our expectations, which means we are on the right path. We are also trying to drive local carriers to Aqaba as a new destination for tourists and persuade other carriers to fly to Jordan. We are working on incentives with decreased landing fees and departure taxes at the Aqaba airport which is becoming attractive for both local and international airlines.
How important are GCC tourists to your plan for a turnaround?
People from the Gulf are extremely important to the Jordanian tourism sector during the summer. We received 850,000 visitors from the Gulf countries in January to September, according to our statistics. It is important to note that we witnessed a decrease in our numbers from the GCC during the first half of the year, but through intensive tourism campaigns targeting consumers directly in places like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait through offline and online advertising as well as radio and television campaigns we were able to reverse that loss back into significant growth during the summer. They are fundamental but they pose a similar issue to local tourists where they concentrate on Amman, the Dead Sea, and the northern parts of Jordan. Jordan has a diversified tourism sector that caters to different demographics so it is important for us to continue stimulating tourist movements for cultural tourism, archaeology, adventure, and eco-tourism, for example.
How important is it today for the industry to turn its attention to independent travelers?
As members of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, we keep up to date with the latest trends and understand that individual travelers have become extremely important. We are definitely shifting towards accommodating independent travelers and for this reason, we introduced the Jordan Pass. The pass offers tourists the chance to buy a single ticket to access all of the Kingdom’s major archaeological sites and museums while waiving entry visa fees for pass holders. More than 1,000 passes have been issued since its soft launch in September. The major launch will be taking place in 2016. However, as the world moves more towards independent travelers, destinations like ours must not move exclusively towards them as a great deal of our business comes through groups. Therefore the ministry and the Jordan Tourism Board are constantly working with our partners in the tourism sector to make sure that no segment is ever neglected.
How are you helping local businesses to survive through the crisis?
We have taken several steps to try and help our local businesses during this trying time. Some of these include amending hotels’ electricity tariffs into industrial tariffs, which cut their electricity bills by a significant amount. We also launched the Jordan Pass, and have waived visa fees for groups and individual travelers coming into Jordan through tour operators with a minimum stay of two consecutive nights, reduced visa fees for all land borders, and waived the departure tax for both Aqaba International Airport and Marka Civil Airport.
What is the state of religious tourism?
Jordan features 34 sites of great potential interest to Christians, including Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where Jesus was baptized and began his public ministry—a site recently recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site—Mount Nebo, where Moses overlooked the Holy Land, and Mukawir, where John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod Antipas. The tombs of many of the Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) companions are found in Jordan. Therefore, we are working on developing and promoting both Christian and Muslim religious tourism. We are offering Muslim pilgrims a chance to add Jordan to Umrah and Hajj programs.
What about medical tourism?
This is another very important sector for us that we continually work on to develop and maintain with two hospital associations. We’re currently ranked fifth worldwide for medical tourism, and first in the Middle East.
Jordan has long been promoted as a boutique destination. In light of the downturn in the sector, do you plan to push for more mass market appeal?
Our status as a niche tourism destination is something that we are proud of. We’re offering several smaller, more unique experiences to our tourists rather than offering them a mass-produced package. Our focus on niche tourism through promoting investment in the sector helps generate income, create job opportunities, and empowers local communities through boosting opportunities for financing and capitalizing on hotels and tourism related facilities, while maintaining the quality of niche tourism.
What else is in the ministry’s pipeline to improve Jordan’s touristic sites?
We will see a completely different Aqaba in 2016. Among other projects, we will open an international golf course. The same ongoing development is happening at the Dead Sea, where hotel numbers and entertainment areas where people could spend their evening are increasing. We are planning not only for today but for the future of tourism. The private sector is the main driver behind this and the government should be the facilitator for the private sector, encouraging it to invest in tourism and working with it to improve all the services and quality of the country’s attractions and services. The project of the Hilton Hotel at the Dead Sea, for example, has already been completed and is due to open by the end of the year. We, at the Ministry, have been working diligently with the Jordan Tourism Board to study the current state of some archeological sites and have come up with a plan to improve and update infrastructure and services offered at these sites if found to be lacking.
Do you think all these actions will reduce tourists’ fears and encourage them to come to Jordan?
We are doing the best that we can to show the world the reality of our country through our campaigns. We are currently advertizing Jordan all around the world and encouraging people to come see for themselves. It is the confidence in which we are promoting Jordan that, in my opinion, is slowly convincing people to reconsider the misperception they’ve heard on the news and look for themselves. We also encourage travelers to go online to travel platforms and social media to read what other tourists have had to say about the country, the hospitality we offer, and our unique experiences.