The unrest in our region has frightened away many tourists over recent years. But Minister of Tourism Lina Annab now says there are tentative signs that visitor numbers are finally on the rise again.
By Dina al-Wakeel
Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Lina Annab is quite optimistic. Surrounded by the ornate antique Jordanian boxes that decorate her office, Annab held the latest tourism indicators, announcing a recovery.
The recovery, she says, was not only for traditional markets, but for tourists coming from new markets that the ministry has been targeting, including Muslims from Asia Pacific countries.
Although the figures are not being reflected on hotel occupancy rates, the minister believes they embody the modern travel trends, which include adventure tourism, camping, individual as opposed to group tourism, and of course Airbnb, which Jordan has to adapt to.
How is the state of our tourism sector today?
The sector is growing and the numbers are showing it. All the indicators have been consistently positive with rates of growth that have exceeded what we consider a normal growth. The growth is in both the number of visitors as well as in terms of the tourism receipts. The receipts are higher which means we are attracting higher spending visitors, which is what we aim for. In general the sector is recovering and we are noticing improvement. However, a lot remains to be done in order to achieve the full potential of what Jordan has to offer.
Who are these visitors, are they mostly Arabs? And what’s contributing to this growth?
Not really. We’ve witnessed a growth of around 10 percent of all visitors. The beauty of what’s happening is the diverse markets where these visitors are coming from. So there is not a concentration of one area. We are witnessing growth in visitors coming from markets that are not our traditional markets such as the Asia Pacific, which is an evolving market for us. We’re seeing month-on-month growth and the rates are indicative of markets that are opening up. We are looking at 40 to 60 percent growth in these markets, but this is normal because the base that we are starting from is not very high. But definitely now with the new initiatives such as code sharing with certain airlines that fly to certain areas where we don’t have accessibility, that’s proving very beneficial. We also have started promoting and targeting specific markets like China, Malaysia, and Indonesia for certain types of tourism, including Muslim religious tourism. It’s a combination of things that is leading to this growth in numbers. However are we close to what our potential is? Absolutely not. But we cannot get close to where we could be without a series of actions; we have a product that needs to be developed, there are certain regulations that need to be developed so we are more adaptive to what’s happening in the market worldwide. It’s a number of things that we need to adopt to develop and grow the sector in a sustainable way and in a way that attracts the type of tourists that we target.
What about the more traditional markets that we normally target like Europe?
They are also growing. We have seen a decline in the numbers coming from the United States but they are coming back and we are looking at a 10 percent growth as well. Europe is recovering as well, but Europe is a very big continent, so I don’t like to generalize because each market has its own particularities. For example, the German and French markets are very important markets for us and we’ve been seeing very healthy growth from them. There are many other European countries that we still have great potential to attract more visitors from, like East Europe, which is huge for Christian tourism. Cyprus and Greece also because of their proximity, we never thought of these countries as incoming, but definitely the offering that Jordan has can be an interesting proposition for these kind of travelers. As for the traditional countries from Europe, we’ve seen a growth but we are also trying to work on other markets. Accessibility is a huge issue and we are trying to see how we can work on that.
So is it safe to say that Jordan’s tourism sector has managed to mitigate the effects of the regional unrest?
Definitely, and it’s one thing to say we’ve managed and another thing to show it in numbers. We have definitely shown the resilience of Jordan and it has been aided also by geo-politically aware travelers who refuse to be taken hostage by inaccurate or overzealous media coverage. Jordan cannot separate itself from being a niche proposition given our size, we are not a very big country, yet we have huge offering. We are not a mass destination and we shouldn’t be, but also at the same time we need to attract enough numbers so that this sector can thrive and be as prosperous as we would like it to be.
Why hasn’t this recovery been reflected on the occupancy rates in hotels across Amman whose rates have been less than 50 percent?
The occupancy rates are not high but then again this is a reflection of the new travel landscape that is evolving worldwide. In Jordan the concentration of hotels is in Amman, so when we talk about occupancy rates it means that the diversification is happening. So we’re not only getting the city dwellers, we are also getting people who are interested in other types of tourism in the more traditional locations like the Dead Sea, Petra, or Wadi Rum. Occupancy rates used to be positively correlated with the number of visitors but that’s changing and for very relevant reasons. Today the breakdown of visitors to Jordan is as follows: We have about 95 percent individual travelers and 5 percent groups. Today’s travelers are looking for more personalized experiences, adventure tourism or camping and alternative accommodation like Airbnb. All of these are generating numbers that are not necessarily reflected on hotels. The collaborative or sharing economy in my opinion is a double edge sword and I think it represents a huge opportunity for us if we know how to reap the benefits of such an economy. Whether we like it or not it’s happening. We need to regulate it in a way that makes it easy for the service provider as well as the recipient of this service. In a way this is providing income and employment even though it is the informal economy.
We’ve also seen a surge in the number of five star hotels. According to the Hotels Association what we need is more three and four-star hotels. Can the ministry help shift investors interest?
I totally agree with that. You design your incentives based on how you see your sector growing and you look at the gaps and try to fill them. There has been a concentration in five star properties that has deprived the five-star investments from reaping the return on investment in a timely manner. We cannot stop investors from investing, however, we definitely need to make it more appealing and more lucrative for people to invest in other types of accommodation. We have to because we’re trying to be demand-driven and today’s definition of luxury has changed and today’s travelers have also changed. We are no longer talking about Millennials but generation Z. These are the new economic powers that we have to deal with and what they are looking for is not a five star offering.
How are we trying to market Jordan worldwide?
I think we need to identify the strategy and vision then we start to talk budgets in order to achieve our vision. The first exercise has already been done because the world is going through a revolution when it comes to tourism and we need to be a proactive part in this changing landscape. Today we are trying to be as much as possible demand-driven—does our offering correlate with what today’s travelers are looking for? So instead of saying we are going after the German market, we are being much more precise and segmented than that. We are going through certain segments in certain markets for a certain offering that we have a competitive and comparative advantage in. We have segmented markets and tourists that we have identified for adventure tourism, religious tourism, medical tourism and MICE.
RJ is also an important player in the tourism sector. Do you think it has finally come to understand the importance of lowering its rates to attract more visitors to Jordan?
Royal Jordanian and Royal Wings, its subsidiary, are very important but I would also say that aviation in general is very important.
I would look at it in terms of the aviation sector and the importance of accessibility to Jordan, whether through RJ, Royal Wings or other airlines. At the same time we need to make sure that we work very closely with RJ in order to identify the markets that we have set as priorities so that maybe we can work on the issues of accessibility with them. They have been lowering prices and the more they lower, the better our tourism sector is.
But don’t you think that if we attract low budget airlines like EasyJet that would help attract even more visitors?
Today low cost carriers are an integral part of the overall formula of traveling. They work with a very clear criteria that either the destination meets or does not meet. This is one thing we need to work on where we identify markets where these carriers are active in and where we have potential. Convincing them to come to Jordan is doable, we just need to provide them with the proper conditions that they look for not only in Jordan but everywhere. That’s one area that we’re seriously working on.
If you look at Aqaba, there are already low cost carriers landing there but not the ones that are bringing big numbers like EasyJet. These are European airlines that have proven that they are very successful on the short, mid haul, and long haul.
What new projects do you have in the pipeline for tourism?
There are quite a few. Mostly between investments and ministry-led projects. As a ministry, we are overseeing quite a few projects that have to do with product development or building visitor centers and rehabilitating sites that should be receiving guests but need some work. We have many of these all over Jordan across all the governorates and they are all important sites because once they are finished they will be able to receive visitors and we will be able to diversify the offering. The more we diversify, the more we ease the pressure on some of our iconic sites like Wadi Rum or Petra. Most people don’t know that in Jordan we have nearly 100,000 archeological sites identified with 27,000 of them documented. And every day we discover a new site. Jordan is an open-air museum. As far as investments are concerned, there are a few that are in the pipeline including in Aqaba and Amman.
Most of the investments in the sector have focused on hotels, unfortunately. We try to encourage people to invest outside and in other types of facilities. It is very important to highlight the importance of the micro and the medium-sized enterprises because they are the catalysts that will move tourism to the governorates and to very interesting areas where not only is the offering fascinating but the chance to create jobs, generate revenue, and alleviate the impact of unemployment is great. The opportunities are there, we just need to identify them and provide the proper support to grow them.
In recent months, we have also read about several complaints from travelers to Jordan. With social media, voices are heard across the world. How does the ministry deal with complaints?
We take complaints very seriously. And I’ll tell you, in any service sector, you will find complaints. The way we see it, every complaint is an opportunity for us to improve the offering and maybe see areas that we can improve. We have a hotline and a very active team that meets on a weekly basis to review complaints and measures that have to be taken immediately to make sure that those who are violating rules are held accountable. We always get in touch with those people who are unhappy if we believe the complaint is grounded. Today, the tourism sector is growing and the more it grows, the more possibility there is for this to happen. This is not specific to Jordan.
Some people hate social media but I think it’s great because it is our eyes and ears in areas that we might not have access to.
Main Tourism Indicators, January 2016- August 2017
% CHANGE 16/17
Same Day Visitors
|Tourist Overnight by Region
East Asia & the Pacific
Jordanians Residing Abroad
|Receipts (Tourism Million JD)||12.9%||2,154||1,908|
|Visitors to the Touristic sites
For more info, visit the ministry’s: www.mota.gov.jo