Photo: AFP
Pope Francis
Photo: AFP

Jordan sees tourist opportunity in Pope's visit

The Hashemite Kingdon, which is home to several holy sites, seeks to revive tourism industry adversely impacted by regional turmoil.

Jordan, whose tourist industry was hit hard by the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, is eyeing the Pope's visit to the region in late May as a chance to promote religious tourism to country, thanks to the many biblical sites in the kingdom.


Tourism revenue in Jordan, where Pope Francis is to kick off his thre-day visit to the Holy Land on May 24, represents 12% of the GDP of this small desert country of 7 million people.



In addition to several historical sites, including the famous ancient city of Petra, the Roman ruins of Jerash and the eastern shores of the Dead Sea, Jordan is home to several holy places like Mount Nebo, where the Bible says God showed Moses the promised land, or Wadi al-Kharrar in the Jordan Valley, known to Christians as the site of the baptism of Jesus Christ.


In Madaba, near Amman, it is possible to observe a map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the 6th century, considered by archaeologists to be the oldest known geographic mosaic.


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But tourism has been severely affected by regional instability in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The Syrian civil war, in particular, drove nearly three million people to flee the country - nearly 600,000 of them were received in the Hashemite kingdom, according to the UN.


In 2013, 5.4 million tourists visited the country, generating revenue of $3 billion from some 6 million visitors, a drop from the $3.2 billion in 2012.


"This decline is the result of political and security problems in neighboring countries such as Syria, Egypt or Lebanon ," said Abdul Razzaq Arabiat, the head of Jordan's tourism board.


"We want to focus on religious tourism and make it a priority. This type of tourism is less likely to be affected by political and economic problems," he said, noting that his country "enjoys a unique location in the Middle East."



During his short visit to the kingdom, which is home to some 200,000 Catholics, Pope Francis will meet King Abdullah II and celebrate a mass at the main stadium in the capital, before having dinner with Syrian refugees.


"This visit will be a major opportunity to promote religious tourism. We expect Christian pilgrims from around the world," said Arabiat. Frnacis' predecessor, Benedict XVI, visited the country in 2009, and John Paul II prayed at Mount Nebo and the Baptism site during his trip to the region in 2000.


Petra, Jordan (Efi Sharir)
Petra, Jordan (Efi Sharir)


John Paul held a ceremony at the restored Byzantine church at Wadi al-Kharrar, which the Jordanians took as a confirmation that this was the baptismal site. But in 2011, Israel opened to the public what officials there claim is the actual site in Qasr al-Yahud, a closed military area near Jericho.


Jordan is also hoping to attract tourists from other Muslim countries.


"We are preparing programs to encourage tourists in countries such Indonesia and Malaysia to come to Jordan... after performing pilgrimage in Mecca to see Islamic sites here," said Arabiat.


The tombs of many of the Prophet Mohammed's companions are found in Jordan, one of the first territories to which Islam spread outside of the Arabian Peninsula. Several important battles between Muslims and the Byzantine empire were also fought there.


Jordan's 8th century desert castles also offer examples of early Islamic art and architecture, with their mosaics and frescoes inspired by Persian and Graeco-Roman traditions.


Economist Yusuf Mansur, head of the Amman-based Envision Consulting Group, said a "clear strategy and funds" were needed to market religious tourism and draw the large crowds of visitors.


"The volume of tourism at the baptism site is still is low and the main reason for that is government negligence," said Mansur.


"The government needs to spend more money on efforts to improve religious sites, create more facilities there for tourists and market the sites internationally in a proper way."


Religious tourism tends to draw middle and higher income visitors over 50 but Jordan is expensive for younger people, said Arabiat.


The papal visit could help turn the tide long after he is gone and boost the industry overall, he said.


Abdul Ilah Harahsheh, sales and marketing manager at Dallas Travel and Tourism company, agreed.


"We need to promote Jordan in a better way. Jordan has good hotels, and infrastructure as well as unique attractions and high level of stability and security."


פרסום ראשון: 05.12.14, 13:19
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