Raad Adayleh / AP

Surrounded by fire, Jordan’s tourists scared away

As tourist visits plummet by 70 percent from 2010, hotels are shutting their doors, and sites like Petra are empty

AMMAN, Jordan — The Shepherd Hotel, tucked into a shady side street in the Jabal Amman neighborhood of Jordan's capital, has managed to keep its tree-covered front gates open through decades of regional conflict. Since opening in 1967, the Shalhoub family has seen their 50-room hotel through prolonged tourist dry spells during Jordan’s 1970 civil war, the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the Gulf War in the 1990s and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Nader Shalhoub, who has run the Shepherd Hotel in Amman since 1971, says he sees no end in sight to Jordan's plummeting tourist industry.
Michael Pizzi

But nothing in the past half-century has scared away guests quite like the crisis roiling across Jordan’s borders in Syria and Iraq today. At less than 20 percent occupancy for several years now, the Shepherd is struggling to pay utilities and staff, says owner Nader Shalhoub, who took over operations from his father in 1971. On a recent afternoon, in the middle of what is usually tourist high season, the only guests who could be found anywhere near the hotel's empty lobby were a pair of American aid workers recently back from Iraq. Were it not for the Shepherd’s bar and nightclub downstairs, Shalhoub says, “We would’ve closed down a long time ago.”

In many ways, the tourism crisis is a microcosm for Jordan’s perennial economic challenges. Sandwiched between Syria, Iraq, Israel and the West Bank, Jordan had long touted its relative stability, marketing itself as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” to tourists who want to explore the region’s ruins and biblical heritage without the risk of political violence. In 2010, before wars erupted in Syria and Iraq, Jordan pulled in over 8 million tourists, fueling an industry that contributed 13 percent of resource-poor Jordan’s modest $34 billion economy.

But since Syria’s war erupted in 2011 and over one million refugees began pouring into Jordan, tourist visits have plummeted close to 20 percent each year. The drop has been particularly dramatic since February, when a video depicting Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kassasbeh being burnt alive in northern Syria by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was posted online. Many feared the execution would draw Jordan’s military directly into the war, or inspire domestic attacks by ISIL supporters in Jordan. No matter that Jordan's borders remain secure, “Now we are considered a war zone, and when you’re a war zone, you’re not a tourist zone,” Shalhoub says.

Visits to Petra, an ancient Nabatean city in southern Jordan, have dropped by around 70 percent since their peak in 2010.
Fabio Nodari / Alamy

The springtime is usually a high season for tourism because of the balmy weather, but package tours were down 43 percent in April compared to last year, according to government figures. All of the major attractions — Jesus’ baptism site to the southwest of Amman, the ruins of Jerash and the Christian city of Madaba, to name a few — have seen roughly 50 percent cuts. But the most damaging drop has been to the ancient red-rock city of Petra, Jordan’s most famous site and a crucial driver of the economy in the south.

With tourist traffic slashed to roughly a quarter of Petra’s historic peak in 2010 – when more than 800,000 people visited the ancient Nabatean city – hotels, restaurants and gift shops in the nearby town of Wadi Musa have begun to shutter. Ahmad Amarat, who has run the four-star Kings Way Hotel since 1993, made that decision earlier this year after calculating that he could not afford to keep the lights on with so many empty beds. 

Hakim Tamimi, right, sits at his desk in the Amman office of his adventure tourism company Tropical Desert.
Michael Pizzi

The 56 people he laid off have joined the ranks of the unemployed, along with dozens of others from the nine hotels in Wadi Musa that have also recently closed. “Normally you hope they will find work somewhere else,” Amarat says. “But they are having a lot of difficulty finding jobs. You go to the market now and see a lot of guys hanging around doing nothing. We have no factories, no companies like the big cities. It’s only tourism here.”

The Jordan Tourism Board is struggling to solve the country’s image problem. There is little that a marketing campaign can do to change perceptions of violence that has already killed over 200,000 people in Syria and spilled over into Iraq. Instead, the JTB is trying to focus on tourist sectors thought to be more resilient, including religious and adventure tourists, as well as residents of the Gulf Arab countries, who compose the bulk of Jordan’s remaining tourists and are perhaps less sensitive to regional turmoil, said JTB managing director Abed Al Razzaq Arabiyat. In the meantime, the government recently announced it would subsidize electric bills for hotels by up to 50 percent to, literally, help them keep the lights on.

But with the turmoil in Syria and Iraq showing little sign of slowing, many in Jordan’s tourism industry fear the worst is yet to come. Hakim Tamimi, the owner of an adventure tour company in Amman that runs cave expeditions across Jordan, said that six Japanese groups canceled their trips after ISIL released its video in January of Japanese reporter Kenji Goto’s execution. He fears the shock waves it would send across Jordan if a high-profile incident were to actually happen within the country's borders. Even those who still sign up for trips often tell him, “‘This might be the last time we’re able to visit this country,’” Tamimi said. “I know what they’re saying might be true, but I live here,” he says with a groan. “I don’t want to think about that.”

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