When Pope Francis arrived in Jordan as part of a Holy Land visit in May 2014, he was bringing with him more than a message of peace. For Jordan’s tourism sector, the Pope’s visit can be seen as a cornerstone in a new push to attract a wide variety of religious tourists to the country. Every year roughly 90,000 tourists visit the baptism site of Jesus Christ, a 6-km strip of land near the Dead Sea that is said to be the location where Jesus was immersed in the waters of the Jordan River. Jordan has invested in renovating dozens of churches and other Christian holy sites, including caves and baptism pools dating to the Roman and Byzantine period, as part of a national push to elevate the profile of Christian religious tourism in the kingdom.
Despite slower than desirable growth rates in recent years, the first quarter of 2014 has shown positive increase in the numbers of individual tourists coming to Jordan. The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities reports a 3.1% rise in the numbers of tourists arriving in the country in the first three months of 2014 as compared with the same period in 2013. The expansion is partially due to a diversification strategy in the tourism sector that is working to market the country as a stand-alone destination ideal for religious, business and ecotourism visits. The Pope’s visit in May 2014 offered a welcome boost to this new strategy. “It is a historic moment. We hope it will encourage Christian tourists from all over the world to visit Jordan,” Nedal Qatameen, Jordan’s tourism minister, told Al Jazeera. “We hope numbers will double after the pope’s visit. It is an opportunity for the world to learn about the historic religious sites in Jordan.”
It is not just Christian tourism that the sector is after; the kingdom has long been an ideal place for Islamic religious tourism as well. From sites of Muslim conquests to the number of services and infrastructure that cater to Muslim tourists, Jordan is a perfectly situated destination for Muslim travellers looking to add on days for the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. Roughly 20% of Jordan’s visitors come from Saudi Arabia after performing the annual hajj pilgrimage, and the kingdom is looking to build on that number via branding campaigns for Muslim tourists.
For instance, seeing growth in the number of Muslim tourists from East Asia, the Jordan Tourism Board recently launched a campaign in Malaysia to promote Muslim travel in the kingdom. The campaign focuses on attracting pilgrims performing the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia to continue with a religious tour of Jordan and the Palestinian Territories. A number of agreements have been signed with tour companies in Indonesia and Malaysia to heighten the profile of the religious places in Jordan and the Palestinian Territories, specifically the historical sites of Islamic conquest in the country. The Jordanian government is also updating infrastructure at some of the kingdom’s most magnificent sites. These updates will further deepen the country’s rich portfolio of varied religious sites available for tourists.
With a wide availability of halal food and gender segregated swimming pools and gymnasiums, Jordan has the necessary infrastructure to attract Muslim travellers looking for a holiday location that offers services in line with religious observance. Given its relaxed atmosphere and pleasant summer temperatures, especially in higher areas like Amman, Jordan is becoming a popular alternative destination to Beirut for Gulf tourists looking to escape soaring temperatures.
However, many of Jordan’s most tranquil and inviting religious sites are still being left off of itineraries and tour operator promotional material due to lack of infrastructure. The country is addressing this as part of the new marketing campaign. More agreements with Jordan’s neighbours, like the joint Jordanian-Palestinian tourism initiative, are considered necessary to fully entrench Jordan’s position as an ideal stop-off point for religious holidays in the Middle East. With promotional agreements and construction plans under way, Jordan’s fundamentals in the religious tourism sector helps position the country as an ideal destination for religious tourists from a variety of backgrounds.
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