The Washington Diplomat / July 2007
By Larry Luxner
WADI MOUSSA, Jordan — These days, no visitor to Petra can escape it.
Jordan's all-out campaign urging tourists to "vote for Petra" is as relentless as the scorching summer heat and the local T-shirt vendors camped out permanently at the entrance to this ancient, 3,000-year-old Nabatean city in the desert.
A tent set up outside the Petra Visitors' Center is equipped with nine PCs. The computer terminals sit under enormous portraits of the late King Hussein and his son, King Abdallah, with a banner in English reminding visitors they can vote for Petra not only by logging onto the www.new7wonders.com website but also by calling a special toll-free number or even by sending an SMS from their cellphones.
Just in case the message hasn't gotten through, another nine PCs crowd the visitors' center itself. Tourists are politely asked to "use the computers only to vote for Petra" — while a not-so-subtle flyer reminds them that it's allowed to vote more than once.
One can hardly blame the authorities for their enthusiasm.
After all, Jordanians have long considered this "rose-red city half as old as time" their nation's greatest tourist attraction, and possibly the best cultural heritage site in the Middle East.
Now they want the rest of the world to agree — and are hoping that a worldwide campaign to identify the seven "new wonders of the world" will put Petra on the global tourism map.
The entire campaign is the brainchild of Bernard Weber, a Swiss-born filmmaker, museum curator, aviator and explorer.
Seven years ago, Weber came up with the idea of choosing seven new wonders of the world, with the final selections being made by millions of people using the Internet.
According to Weber, the commonly known seven ancient wonders of the world were all man-made monuments, selected by Philon of Byzantium in 200 B.C.
"His selection of wonders was essentially a travel guide for fellow Athenians, and the stunning sites were all located around the Mediterranean basin, the then-known world," said Weber, whose foundation is based in Zurich.
The monuments Philon chose — to be remembered in perpetuity — were the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Temple of Artemis, the Statue of Zeus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and Egypt's Pyramids of Giza.
All had been built between 2500 and 200 B.C., but today, only the Pyramids of Giza remain.
"The renowned ancient wonders belong to antiquity and with the exception of the Pyramids, none remains in existence," said Weber. "There has never been any true public consensus of opinion on the last 2,000 years of human achievement. The beginning of the new millennium is a poignant historical moment for determining the New 7 Wonders of the World."
Weber added: "The Internet is perhaps the only democratic means of distributing information around the world since it is free to everyone who has access to a computer and telephone network. That is why we are urging the world's population to participate in this free vote which pays tribute to our collective global cultural heritage."
At the end of 2005, a seven-member international panel headed by Spain's Dr. Federico Mayor Zaragoza — former director-general of UNESCO — narrowed a list of 77 potential wonders down to 21 finalists.
These 21 include the following: Acropolis (Greece); Alhambra (Spain); Angkor (Cambodia); Chichen Itza (Mexico); Christ the Redeemer (Brazil); Colosseum (Italy); Easter Island Statues (Chile); Eiffel Tower (France); Great Wall (China); Hagia Sophia (Turkey); Kiyomizu Temple (Japan); Kremlin (Russia); Machu Picchu (Peru); Neuschwanstein Castle (Germany); Petra (Jordan); Pyramids of Giza (Egypt); Statue of Liberty (USA); Stonehenge (United Kingdom); Sydney Opera House (Australia); Taj Mahal (India) and Timbuktu (Mali).
People voting online must first register — a process that involves answering a few simple questions — then choose seven of the 21 finalist sites. The winning sites will be announced in Lisbon on July 7, which coincides with 07-07-07.
Of the 21 sites, Petra is the only one in the Middle East (excluding Egypt's Pyramids, which will automatically be included since it was one of the original seven wonders of the world).
The ancient capital of the Nabateans, Petra consists of a series of buildings carved into solid rock. The most famous of these structures is "El Khazneh" (The Treasury) — reached only after a mile-long trek through narrow canyons on horseback, donkey or foot. Petra is particularly spectacular in late afternoon, when the angle of the sun gives the ruins a rich reddish hue.
If Petra wins the New 7 Wonders competition, it could do wonders for the local economy.
"It would make Petra famous all over the world, and many people will come to visit," said Omar Hamadeen, who teaches English at a high school in the small town of Wadi Moussa, and works nights at an Internet cafe down the road from the ruins.
Some 21,000 people live in Wadi Moussa, and 70% of them depend directly on tourism for a living, according to Rami Farajat, director of public relations at the Petra Visitors' Center.
"If people come to visit Petra and they like it, they can vote for Petra," he told the Washington Diplomat. "If it's picked, it'll be great for the Jordanian economy, from the north to the south. It'll be like oil for us."
Farajat added: "The Pyramids have already been made an honorary candidate, therefore you cannot vote for the Pyramids."
Petra, which is now considered among the top seven of the 21 sites competing for the "new wonders of the world" designation, is already Jordan's top tourist destination. Last year, it attracted around 600,000 visitors. Farajat said half of them are Europeans, another 20% are Americans, and most of the balance are visitors from other Arab countries and the Far East.
"I know people who have come here 50 times, for a week at a time," said Farajat, who's worked at Petra for eight years. "People love it."
The most desirable tourists, from Jordan's point of view, are those who stay in luxury hotels. In the immediate vicinity of Petra, there are some 55 hotels, including a five-star Crowne Plaza and two Movenpicks. Entrance to the ruins costs 21 Jordanian dinars (around $29), though Jordanian nationals pay only one dinar ($1.40).
"After the Sept. 11 attacks, only 500 people a day were coming to Petra," he said. "Now, on an average day in high season from mid-March to May, about 2,500 to 3,000 people come. In low season, that goes down to 1,000."
Malia Asfour is director of the Jordan Tourism Board's North American office in McLean, Va. She views the New 7 Wonders campaign as "another promotional tool" for her country — even if some of its methods, such as allowing people to vote as many times as they like — are questionable.
"These people in Switzerland who have put this together have managed to gain a lot of publicity," she told the Diplomat. "It reinvigorates the knowledge of geography, and puts Petra back on the map as one of the wonders of the world. We've always marketed Petra as the eighth wonder of the world anyway, and this just elevates it to even a better place."
Asfour, who started the Jordan Tourism Board in 1997, said her annual U.S. promotional budget is just under $1 million. This compares to $5-10 million for Egypt and $11 million for Israel.
Ironically, the war in Iraq may ultimately help the Jordanian tourism industry by highlighting the country's relative safety, said Asfour — even though one million Iraqi refugees are now living in Jordan.
"Americans have gotten geographically savvy because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," she explained. "The war has given us an accelerated geography lesson. And since terrorism has no boundaries anymore, Americans have come to the realization that travel is their birthright, and they're willing to be more adventurous."
Last year, said Asfour, nearly 184,000 Americans visited Jordan; visas are required but are issued automatically upon arrival at Amman's Queen Alia International Airport.
Asfour said Jordan will also "reap a lot of benefit" from the current violence in Lebanon, a major competitor for tourism dollars from the wealthy Persian Gulf market — especially in the summer months when temperatures in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Kuwait can reach well over 115 degrees.
Another important source of tourism is neighboring Israel, which shares a lengthy desert border with Jordan. Some 600 Israelis visit every week, but only 20% of them stay in hotels since the other 80% — mainly backpackers — are on day trips from the southern Israeli port city of Eilat.
"Overnight stays are much more important in terms of revenues than day trips. Promoting day visits is not something I would recommend or do," said Asfour, asked about the relative importance of the Israeli tourism market.
"You cannot see Petra in two hours. If you really want to visit Petra, you need a minimum of three days to see all the highlights. And when you stay in hotels, go into the shops and buy souvenirs, you're helping the income of the country. Remember, my job feeds little kids on the street in Jordan."
She said her country has learned its lesson and will no longer try to sell Jordan as part of a "Holy Land" package that also includes Israel, Egypt and areas under Palestinian control.
"We market Jordan as a stand-alone destination," she said. "When the peace treaty with Israel was signed in 1994, there was a stipulation to market Jordan and Israel as a joint destination. But after the intifada started in 2000, our tourism industry got hurt badly. We realized we cannot market ourselves with our neighbors, because if something happens in Egypt, Israel or Turkey, it will affect us negatively."