While Jordan’s tourism industry continues to labour under the weight of regional instability, with official figures showing a 14% decline in the number of visitors in 2013, a variety of novel initiatives could hold the key to recovery.
According to statistics released in mid-February, around 5.4m tourists visited the kingdom in 2013, down from 6.3m in 2012. The number of overnight visitors dropped by 16%, from 4.2m to 3.5m, and the number of day trippers eased from 2.2m to 1.4m. As with the past few years, the sector’s performance was attributed to various forms of unrest in the MENA region, from post-revolutionary power struggles in Egypt and Libya, to the ongoing conflict in neighbouring Syria.
The Egyptian crisis is doubly damaging because, as the region’s top tourist draw, it traditionally figures in a large number of package tours that take visitors to more than one country. Without Egypt on the itinerary, many would-be visitors decide to wait until conditions improve there. In addition, European travellers in particular are staying closer to home because of a persistent economic slowdown that has eroded their disposable incomes.
One effect of these challenges is that although Jordan has largely avoided the kind of instability plaguing its neighbours, a key pool of tourists are no longer making it to the region at all. As with many tests, however, this one shows signs of yielding long-term benefits. With less tourist money to go around, companies across the sector have been making changes on various levels, creating opportunities for significant improvements in competitiveness.
Some of these are basically accounting measures designed to allow more to be made of available resources. Royal Jordanian Airlines, for instance, has suspended services to Alexandria, Colombo and Milan, allowing more frequent flights on more popular routes.
Other changes have been more novel, and while some may take years to prove their worth, the creativity and versatility involved are impressive. In February, the Jordan Society of Tourism and Travel Agents brought “Meditation Tourism” to the shores of the Dead Sea. Launched in cooperation with the Jordan Meditation Club, the venture is also benefitting from coordination with Thailand, which has significant experience in the field.
While meditation is expected to serve as a value-added enticement for tourists already in or bound for Jordan, the kingdom hopes to expand its role in larger niche markets with proven potential to sustain perennial flows of specialised tourism. For several years now, the country has been raising its profile on the global map for travellers motivated by various activities and interests, including archaeology, ecotourism, diving, and health and wellness. Medical tourism, in particular, has been of tremendous benefit, not just to the hospitality industry but also – by providing crucial revenues for the development and modernisation of the health care sector – to the economy and society at large.
Attracting Muslim visitors
Above all, the kingdom is well-situated to grab a greater share of a far larger niche market by catering more effectively to the tastes and mores of Muslim travellers. According to a study by Singapore-based Crescentrating, Jordan ranks eighth in the world in terms of Muslim-oriented tourism, as measured by a variety of criteria ranging from providing halal menu options to setting aside gender-segregated times for gymnasia and swimming pools.
Jordan enjoys several advantages in this market (estimated by Crescentrating to have been worth more than $140bn in 2013), not least its cultural, linguistic and religious affinities with many of the travellers in question. Indeed, more than half of the tourists who visit Jordan in a typical year come from other Arab countries, and the vast majority of these are Muslims.
Saudi Arabia alone provided 20% of all visitors to Jordan in 2013, but there is considerable room to increase such numbers, in part due to instability elsewhere in the region. For example, most members of the GCC have advised or even ordered their nationals to avoid all travel to Lebanon, badly damaging that country’s vital hospitality sector but opening up opportunities for Jordanian operators.
Many Gulf visitors to Lebanon are looking for a more relaxed social setting rather than a conservative one, but Jordan offers many options. Another common priority is to escape the soaring temperatures of the Gulf summer, and while most of Jordan is not as cool as Lebanon during these months, the emergence of Aqaba as a primary destination means visitors can always find watery ways to beat the heat.