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Tourism: Jordan cashes in
The Middle East / March 2000

By Larry Luxner

AMMAN -- Open the Bible to just about any page, and chances are you'll find a geographical reference to Jordan. Well aware of that fact, Jordanian tourism officials -- mindful of the Biblical significance the year 2000 has for Christian pilgrims -- are rushing to spruce up holy places and archaeological sites from the Greco-Roman ruins of Jerash in the north to the ancient Nabatean city of Petra in the south.

They're also struggling -- on a limited budget -- to get the word out that Jordan is one of the safest places in the world, a country at peace with Israel and virtually unaffected by the terrorist attacks and hostilities that are a part of everyday life in the Middle East.

Of all the pilgrims expected to flock to Jordan during 2000, the most important will be Pope John Paul II, who is scheduled to pay an official visit Mar. 20-21, then continue on to Israel for another four days.

"Since we started planning for the millennium, it was our intention to add Biblical sites to our product, and use 2000 only as a launching pad," said Marwan Khoury, managing director of the Jordan Tourism Board. "This is what adds flavor to the Jordanian product.

Among Jordan's most important Biblical sites are Bethany, the site along the River Jordan where John baptized Jesus Christ; Madaba, home of an ancient Byzantine mosaic map of the Middle East dating from 540 A.D., and Mount Nebo, where Moses supposedly died after viewing the Promised Land. According to the Vatican, the Pope will visit all three sites as part of his long-awaited jubilee tour. Jordanian tourism officials hope that visit will encourage millions more Christians to follow in his footsteps -- with dollars.

Last year, 1.35 million tourists came to Jordan, a number expected to reach 1.5 million this year. The largest contingent comes from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, followed by Israel, which sent 125,000 tourists in 1999. Interestingly, about 75% of those were Israeli Arabs or Palestinians on family visits, though Khoury says he wants to target Israeli Jewish tourists, who generally have more money to spend and are more likely to stay in hotels.

"The Israelis only know Petra. They don't know about anything else we have to offer," he said. "We need to do promotional work in their own language, Hebrew. We have an embassy in Israel, but we cannot rely on embassies. We're therefore considering appointing a public-relations rep in Tel Aviv, though that probably won't happen this year."

Already, droves of Hebrew-speaking Israeli tourists on day trips can be seen swarming through Petra -- a fabulous ancient Nabatean city that was off-limits to Israelis until the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994. Menorahs and Hebrew-language guide books cram the shelves of Petra souvenir shops, and along the Desert Highway, signs now point the way to Eilat, an Israeli port city just across the Red Sea from Aqaba.

As lucrative as Israeli tourist traffic is, however, it's the Americans Khoury really wants to lure to Jordan -- and not just for two or three days as is currently the case.

"Our main concern is to increase the average length of stay of Americans," he says, noting that about $1 million of the Jordan Tourism Board's $6 million budget is devoted to marketing and promotional efforts in the United States, which sent 105,000 tourists to Jordan last year. That number is likely to increase significantly in 2000, despite an unprecedented State Department warning issued Dec. 17 in the wake of terrorist threats.

"This perception of Jordan is completely wrong. Americans think it's not safe," says Lawrence Steeman, executive assistant manager of the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman. "The U.S. Embassy says there is a safety concern here. Then I ask myself, if a synagogue in Brussels is bombed, does a similar letter go out saying Belgium is unsafe?"

Such concerns haven't deterred hotel developers. The past few years have seen an explosion in new hotel construction, particularly in Amman. According to Khoury, over $600 million has been invested since 1995 in hotels; in the past two years, some 6,000 rooms have come onto the market, for a total of 18,000 rooms.

With 500 rooms, the Inter-Continental is still Jordan's biggest hotel. But it will soon be rivaled by Sheraton, Four Seasons and Le Royale, which are all building properties of between 250 and 300 rooms each.

That's made things difficult for existing hoteliers, says Steeman, who claims his 61% occupancy rate last year was the highest of any five-star hotel in Amman.

"There is too much supply, and not enough demand," Steeman complains. Jordan as a whole registered an occupancy rate of just 45% in 1998, the latest year for which statistics are available. The numbers have since improved, though tourist arrivals still have plenty of room for improvement.

Yet in the long run, predicts Khoury, the Palestinian issue will be solved, and the Arab-Israeli conflict will be put to rest -- sparking tourism, new business opportunities and the demand for new hotel rooms.

"To me, what's important is that all international chains are now in Jordan. We are now in the process of promoting Amman as a MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and events) destination," he says. "We have good facilities, a diversified tourist product, safety and hospitality. When you have a Mövenpick, an Inter-Continental and a Marriott, it's easy to sell your destination." He adds that "he people who invest here see things locals don't see -- that a comprehensive peace will open up the area. The money being invested here is private-sector money. I assume these investors know what they're doing."

One of the biggest investors is Zara Investment (Holding) Co. Ltd., which recently poured $40 million into the Mövenpick Resort & Spa along Jordan's Dead Sea coast. In addition to 233 guest rooms in two-story village buildings of traditional stone and plaster construction, the complex also includes the Sanctuary Zara Spa -- billed as the largest luxury spa in the Middle East.

"The spas on the Israeli side are very sophisticated for medical treatment, but from the luxury point of view, we're the only Dead Sea spa on either side of the border," says Diana Kassih, public relations manager at the Mövenpick. "Being at the lowest point on Earth, you get very relaxed here. The bromide in the atmosphere acts like a valium. Also, the Jordanian side is not very developed. It's still clean. This is one thing I hear from guests who have been on both sides."

Right now, the largest groups of tourists coming to the Mövenpick are Swiss, Germans and Italians -- though increasing numbers of Israelis are also hopping over the border, attracted by the relative peace and quiet, and by the fact that even at $500 for a week of treatments, not including the hotel room itself, the Mövenpick is still cheaper than Israel's own Dead Sea resorts.

Zara, which owns not only the Mövenpick but also the Hyatt, the Inter-Continental and other resorts, isn't the only investor who views the Dead Sea as anything but dead. A 220-room Marriott is also rising nearby, while the French group Accor plans a thermal resort. "Eventually, we'll have five or six resorts along the Dead Sea," says Khoury.

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