New tourism attractions and international connections encourage visitors and foreign investment to Jordan

 

With sweeping desert landscapes alongside natural and man-made wonders, tourism is a key pillar of Jordan’s economy. Visitors flock to the country to see the fabled ancient city of Petra, take in important holy sites for Christians, Jews and Muslims, and bathe in the Dead Sea. While continued tension in the region has dented tourist numbers over the last few years, there are signs that this is turning around, with marketing strategies now in place to better promote the kingdom and further develop niche tourism segments, such as adventure, film and medical tourism. International hotel chains continue to add to the number of rooms available in the kingdom, establishing the foundations for long-term growth.

Revenue 

According to the World Tourism and Travel Council (WTTC), the direct contribution of travel and tourism to Jordan’s GDP was JD1.37bn ($1.9bn) in 2016, down from JD1.45bn ($2bn) in 2015. The sector accounted for 4.9% of the country’s GDP in 2016, and was forecast to grow by 4% in 2017. A statement from the Central Bank of Jordan (CBJ) to local media in January 2018 showed earnings from tourism rose by 12.5% in 2017 over the previous year. In December 2017 alone, tourism revenue increased by 9.1% year-on-year (y-o-y) on the back of rising visitor numbers, which grew by 6.2%.

The WTTC expects the industry to expand by 5.5% per annum between 2017 and 2027, when it is estimated that it will directly contribute JD2.43bn ($3.4bn) to the economy, the equivalent of 5.5% of GDP. The total direct and indirect contribution of the sector to the economy was estimated at JD5.42bn ($7.6bn) in 2016, 19.4% of GDP, with this number expected to rise to JD9.79bn ($13.8bn) by 2027.

Leisure travel spending, both inbound and domestic, generated JD3.3bn ($4.6bn) in 2016, some 88.8% of direct travel and tourism GDP, according to WTTC figures, with business travel contributing the remaining 11.2%, or JD410.3m ($578.8m). Leisure travel spending was expected to grow by 4% to JD3.4bn ($4.8bn) in 2017, while business travel spending was expected to rise by 2.5% to JD420.6m ($593.3m).

The tourism sector is heavily dependent on foreign money. WTTC data shows that in 2016 domestic travel spending generated 8.2% of direct travel and tourism GDP, compared with 91.8% for foreign visitor spending and international tourism receipts. Government investment in the tourism sector totalled JD613.9m ($866m) in 2016, or 8.8% of total country-wide investment, and it is predicted to increase by 5.2% in 2017 and by 6.1% per annum until 2027.

Visitor Numbers 

While Jordan has not been swept up in the instability that has affected many other countries in the Middle East, the nearby uncertainty has affected the country’s tourism sector, with travellers more cautious about visiting the region in general. “Petra pulled in 1m visitors in 2010, the peak year, but a few years ago, after the Arab Spring, the number fell to around 380,000 [in 2016],” Ibrahim Osta, then-chief of party for US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Building Economic Sustainability through Tourism Programme, told OBG. “This was a significant drop and affected the entire tourism value chain. Tour guides weren’t working, hotels were largely vacant, and coaches, taxis, car rentals, crafts and local communities all suffered.”

After several challenging years there have been positive signs for the tourism sector recently. Visitor arrivals reached 4.8m in 2016, according to the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MoTA), down 0.6% from 2015. In January 2018 the CBJ highlighted figures from the MoTA to local media, showing the downward trend did not continue for 2017, with the number of tourists visiting Jordan increasing by 8.7% over the previous year. Between January and November 2017 some 3.9m overnight tourists visited the country, up from 3.6m from the previous year. In addition, one-day visitor numbers grew by 6.4% over the same period in 2016. The most recent data from the MoTA showed that by the end of June 2017 tourist groups had increased by 54% compared to 2016.

Source Markets 

In recent years Jordan has focused on attracting tourists from further afield, and with notable success. In the first half of 2017 Indian overnight visitors to Jordan grew by 36.6%, according to the MoTA. At the same time, sameday visitor arrivals rose by 11.5%, suggesting that Indians were choosing to stay longer in the country. According to the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB), the average length of stay for Indian visitors, for both leisure and business, had increased to 2.8 days in 2016. “Things are improving. It could be better in terms of certain markets, but other markets are doing extremely well, especially emerging markets,” Adel Amin, deputy managing director and director of marketing at JTB, told OBG. “Asia is really developing rapidly, especially China and India. We are looking into different collaborations and co-marketing with certain airlines where our national carrier doesn’t fly. However, historic markets are seeing slower gains.”

In the first half of 2017 total arrivals to Jordan from the Asia-Pacific region increased by 41.2% y-o-y, with the second-largest increase coming from Africa (33.9%), followed by the Americas (18%) and Europe (14.1%). Tourists from Gulf markets grew more slowly at 4.5%, affected by austerity measures among other things. Travellers from these countries have traditionally made up the bulk of visitors to the kingdom.

MoTA figures comparing the first six months of 2017 to 2016 show that while same-day visitors from Asia increased by 23.6%, overnight stays grew by 43%, from 115,000 to 165,000, highlighting the strong push being made in Asia. Same-day travellers from Saudi Arabia grew by 10.7% y-o-y for the first half of 2017, with overnight stays up 4.6%. Saudi visitors represent the largest number of day visitors to the country. Same-day visitors from the Palestinian territories, another key demographic and the second largest for the region, also rose by 2.7%, while overnight stays increased by 17.9%. Same-day visitors from Europe grew by 11.6% y-o-y in the first six months of 2017, with overnight stays increasing by 14.6%.

Security 

Jordan has not entirely escaped the turmoil in the region. A terrorist attack on the historic hillside castle in Karak, a popular tourist attraction, in December 2016 led to the death of 10 people, including one tourist. The castle was reopened to visitors after 18 days, with Lina Annab, the minister of tourism and antiquities, saying there were plans to install lighting and cameras inside and around Karak Castle, as well as a security barrier. While it is hard to know the full impact of the attack on visitor numbers, signs point to the resilience of the sector and overall reputation of the kingdom. According to the World Economic Forum’s “Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2017”, Jordan ranked 38th out of 136 countries for the safest destinations globally for tourists in 2017, and fifth among regional countries, behind the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Morocco.

VISAS: In 2014 Jordan doubled the price of a single-entry visa on arrival to JD40 ($56.43). A double-entry visa – valid for three months – costs JD60 ($84.64). However, to attract larger groups, those in a group of five or more, for a minimum of three nights and travelling through a designated Jordanian tour operator, are exempt from all visa charges. Travellers arriving at the coastal city of Aqaba via sea, airport or crossing by land from Israel or Saudi Arabia, are also granted free entry into the country providing they leave from the same border crossing they entered from within a one-month period.

Major Sites 

The tourism sector relies heavily on the kingdom’s cultural and historical sites, chief among them the ancient city of Petra, located 235 km south of Amman. The country is also home to significant holy sites for Muslims, Jews and Christians, in addition to the ancient Roman ruins at Jerash, the crusader castle at Karak and Byzantine mosaics at Madaba. In total, Jordan has five UNESCO World Heritage sites: Petra; Um er-Rasas, a Roman settlement dating back to the 3rd century CE; Quseir Amra, an 8th-century desert castle; the desert wilderness of Wadi Rum; and, since 2015, Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site of Jesus’ baptism.

Preliminary figures released by the MoTA recorded growing numbers of visitors to major attractions in the first half of 2017, with Petra seeing a 45.5% increase y-o-y, from 204,000 to 297,000. At Madaba visitor numbers grew by 55%, from 67.000 to 103,000. Foreign visitors to Jerash increased by 77.5% while their Jordanian counterparts dropped by 21.7%. In Wadi Rum visitors had risen 91.8% over the same period in 2016. The latest total year figures for 2016 show 465,000 tourists visited Petra, a 14% increase compared to the roughly 400,000 people who visited in 2015. Jerash received more than 211,000 visitors in 2016, up 18% on the previous year. Wadi Rum was visited by 105,000 tourists in 2016, up 60% y-o-y.

A 2014 agreement between the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority and the Japan International Cooperation Agency unveiled plans for a new modern museum to be built alongside the current visitor centre, located at the entrance to the archaeological city of Petra. Construction for the museum began in 2017, and upon completion it will exhibit various historical and cultural antiquities from the ancient Nabataean kingdom.

New Attractions

Alongside Jordan’s main attractions, authorities are trying to establish additional reasons to visit and to extend stays. In January 2017 Petra was added to Jordan’s National Protected Areas Network, a step that could lead to the area being designated a nature reserve in the future. The area is home to more than 750 plant and animal species, with the initiative aimed at conserving the “unique biodiversity resources of Petra in order to sustain it as a main attraction for tourism, and as an asset for ecotourism,” Yaseen Khayyat, former minister of environment, told local media at the time. Protecting bird species, such as raptors, storks and ibises, could also attract birdwatchers from around the world.

In December 2016 Jordan announced seven new ecotourism projects located within its nature reserves, aiming to increase ecotourist numbers by around 52,000 per year. According to figures from Jordan’s independent volunteer organisation, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, ecotourism projects generated JD1.5m ($2.1m) in 2015, with 175,000 peopl28e visiting the country’s nature reserves, 65% of them foreigners.

In November 2016 Annab announced to local news that Jordan and Egypt had signed 17 agreements for tourism-related projects, including the development of religious tourism. Important historical landmarks, such as the Sharif Hussein bin Ali House in Aqaba, are set to be revitalised, with the aim of creating new tourist attractions for visitors to experience. A new cultural museum is also planned in the city of Karak.

One of the main initiatives already in place is the recently launched Jordan Trail, which may bring in tourists eager for a different experience. “We have invested heavily in launching the new Jordan Trail, which goes through some 46 villages spanning the full length of Jordan from north to south,” USAID’s Osta told OBG. “National Geographic ranked it as one of the top-15 new trails in the world.” The trail begins with forest scenery in the north, passes through the rugged desert of Wadi Rum, Petra, and numerous canyons and hills, while offering varied terrain, adventure and cultural experiences. “It’s important to create new visitor experiences and stories to tell about Jordan for new markets and wider age groups,” added Osta. “We are already getting fantastic coverage, and in a very short period of time.”

Niche Markets 

Although Jordan relies heavily on traditional tourism, efforts are under way to develop a number of niche segments to attract visitors. “We have religious tourism, conference tourism, film tourism – these are the kinds of niche markets that are likely to succeed,” Awni Kawar, vice-chairman of the Jordan Inbound Tour Operators Association, told OBG. According to JTB’s Amin, Jordan’s geographical location, as well as its political stability, make it a prime location for meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) tourism. “Jordan is stable and accessible, and add-on sites make it an attraction. We are about to launch the Jordan Convention Bureau, which will be focused on attracting regional and international conferences to the country. The infrastructure is there – all we have to do is raise awareness,” he told OBG.

Meanwhile, thanks to an increasing number of high-profile films shot partly in Jordan, notably Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Martian, Jordan has been trying to capitalise on the exposure. The MoTA is working alongside the Royal Film Commission, the agency tasked with attracting foreign productions, to help with promoting the country as a film-tourism destination.

Airport Upgrades 

The main entry point for those not travelling overland is the Queen Alia International Airport (QAIA) in Amman, which received 3.6m passengers in the first half of 2017, up 5.4% y-o-y. Other major airports include the King Hussein International Airport located in Aqaba. In March 2017 a global trade representative of world airports, Airport Council International, named QAIA the best airport of its size in the Middle East, with a tie for third place internationally. A $214m terminal project completed in September 2016 expanded QAIA’s total area to 160,000 sq metres and boosted capacity by over 70%, enabling it to accommodate 12m passengers annually. Future development will extend the airport’s capacity to 16m passengers per year. The project will be implemented as a public-private partnership (PPP) under a 25-year build-operate-transfer concession agreement that runs through to 2032.

In July 2017 Jordan began inviting bids on a project to transform Amman Civil Airport, which is currently dedicated to chartered and private flights, to a facility capable of serving commercial air passengers to relieve strain on QAIA. The project is expected to cost JD150m ($211.6m) and will be offered on a build-operate-transfer basis, according to local media. Plans for the airport, which is located 5 km north-west of the capital, include the construction of a new passenger terminal and runway expansion. The Cabinet has allocated JD80m ($112.9m) for the renovation of the airport, as part of a PPP.

Improving Connections 

In May 2014 easyJet cancelled its London-to-Amman route it operated for three years. “Two or three years ago we used to have easyJet flying from Amman to London, with return tickets costing around £200, but easyJet pulled out because of the high taxes,” Yassar Al Majali, Jordan country manager at Sabre Travel Network Middle East, told OBG. “For tourists, the major issues are airline tickets and hotels,” he added. “For tickets now between Amman and London, the minimum price in the low season is about £500. If we have low-cost airlines we will have more tourists, and if we have more tourists we are going to have more occupancy in the hotels. It is a win-win situation for the government and the private sector.”

In June 2017 JTB announced it was in final-stage negotiations to bring in low-cost airlines to link Aqaba with airports in the UK and Italy, with the aim of enticing more visitors. At the time, Abed Al Razzaq, general manager of JTB, told local media that competitively priced airfares were an essential factor for attracting holidaymakers. These flights would add to the existing weekly flights between Aqaba and Brussels, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki, with additional direct low-cost flights coming from Russia. The JTB announced plans for the development of direct flights between Aqaba and Amsterdam, Düsseldorf, Cairo, Sharjah and Erbil in 2017 to help strengthen Aqaba’s position for international tourists. In April 2017 Royal Wings, the charter arm of Royal Jordanian airlines, announced new services between Cairo and Aqaba to serve tourists as well as Egyptian workers in the city.

International low-cost carrier Ryanair launched its first flights to Jordan in early February 2018, with 14 routes in total to Amman and Aqaba expected to service around 500,000 customers a year. Flights will operate between Amman and eight European countries, including Italy, Brussels and Poland. Aqaba will receive passengers from Greece, Italy and Bulgaria. “Opening up new routes to the kingdom from several crucial markets is key in bringing tourists for extended stays in Jordan.” Al Razzaq told local media. “We are now able to make the kingdom more accessible to a broader segment of potential tourists whose impact on the local economy will be substantial on every level of the tourism sector supply-chain.”

Aqaba has hosted an increasing number of cruise ships, with the city functioning as Jordan’s access point to the sea. Between January and May 2017 a total of 21 cruise liners docked at Aqaba, bringing in 25,000 tourists, with the total to reach approximately 50,000 for the year, according to the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority. Tourists arriving by cruise ship typically spend a day ashore, visiting Petra and Wadi Rum, followed by a night in a bedouin camp.

Hotel Occupancy 

Although visitor numbers have fluctuated in recent years, investment in new hotel accommodation has continued steadily. Between 2010 and 2015 the number of hotels in Jordan increased from 487 to 558, according to the JTB. Over the same period hotel room numbers increased from 24,000 to 27,600, with the market strongly weighted towards high-end accommodation.

Average room occupancy rates across all one- to five-star hotels in Jordan grew to 42.2% in 2016 from 38.4% in 2015, pointing to a strengthening of the market, with five-star hotels seeing a 26.5% increase in nights spent by tourists compared to 2015. Occupancy rates among five-star hotels in Amman were at 44.6% in 2016. The MoTA’s preliminary figures for the first quarter of 2017 show room occupancy rates continuing to grow with 1.8% change y-o-y, despite a 4% decrease in the number of arrivals for the same period. Two-star hotel offerings were the only category to experience growth in nights spent for the period, with an 18.1% change y-o-y.

“Five-star occupancy rates are trending around the 55% mark, with a few exceptions. Classic five-star properties won’t be above 60% occupancy by the end of the year,” Michael Koth, director of operations, Levant, InterContinental Hotels, and general manager of the InterContinental Jordan in Amman, told OBG. “Business is not yet in-line with investors’ confidence, and we are struggling a little bit to show the growth across Jordan y-o-y, but we can see pockets of excellence, especially domestic leisure and international leisure,” he said, highlighting religious tourism and ecotourism as growth areas, as well as visitors to the Dead Sea. “Amman is still struggling with oversupply. It is more and more difficult to absorb additional supply in the Amman market.”

Hotel Developments 

Several new hotels have been opened in recent years, expanding the offerings for visitors. In 2016 the Amman Rotana, which has 412 rooms and suites, was opened. This followed the launch of The Boulevard Arjaan by regional hotel management group Rotana a year earlier, complete with 391 hotel apartments. Another notable addition is the Hilton Dead Sea Resort & Spa, which opened in 2017 on the eastern shores of the Dead Sea, with 285 rooms and direct beach access.

Campbell Gray Living Amman, a flagship property of Campbell Gray Hotels, is currently under development and set to open its doors in 2019. The hotel, which is a part of the Campbell Gray Living mixed-use development in the heart of downtown Amman, will have 192 rooms and suites. Other hotel developments on the horizon include the 280-room W Amman, which is operated by Marriott International and set to come on-line in late March 2018. Hospitality giant Marriott International, which bought Starwood Hotels & Resorts in 2016 and subsequently took over ex-Starwood brands, is also set to open the 260-room St Regis Amman in May 2018, as well as the 300-room Westin Saraya Aqaba in August 2018.

Aqaba is scheduled to see a host of new hotels opening in 2017 and 2018, chief among them the 286-room Hyatt Regency Aqaba Ayla, the Jumeirah at Saraya Aqaba and the 200-room Al Manara Aqaba. In July 2017 Swiss-Belhotel International opened the Grand Swiss-Belresort Tala Bay Aqaba, the group’s first five-star property in the country. The 336-room hotel is located directly on the Red Sea, with 80% of the rooms facing out across a marina.

Meanwhile, the first Ritz-Carlton brand hotel in Jordan is scheduled to open in Amman in 2020, and will be the brand’s 20th property in the Middle East and Africa. The hotel will have 233 guest rooms and suites, a rooftop restaurant, a spa and a 1000-sq-metre ballroom. JTB’s Al Razzaq told OBG that despite significant growth in the high-end hotel sector, there was room for operators in other areas. “There is a big opportunity to develop mid-tier hotels to fill the gap we currently see in the market between top-tier hotels and those at the lower end.”

Sector Employment 

In terms of employment, WTTC data shows the sector directly employed 80,500 people in 2016, some 5.1% of total employment in the kingdom, with this set to rise by 1.6% in 2017 and by 3.7% per year until 2027, when the sector is expected to directly employ 118,000 people. Overall, the sector was directly and indirectly responsible for around 287,000 jobs in 2016, 18.1% of total employment in the country.

With a host of new hotels coming on-line, there will be a strong demand for an additional trained workforce to maintain the growing sector. “There are 28,000 hotel rooms in Jordan, and within 10 years we will have around 30,000 new hotel rooms. So we need at least 20,000 more people employed in the sector,” Rida Hashem, general manager of Jordan Hotels Association, told OBG. “The biggest need is in housekeeping, the kitchen and restaurants.”

USAID is becoming more involved in workforce development. “We are working on a new sector-wide human resources development strategy, which will be unveiled soon,” USAID’s Osta told OBG. “One initiative already under way includes total reform of higher education for hospitality and tourism, along with industry-based training. We have an agreement with the Ministry of Higher Education and the Higher Education Accreditation Council, and are upgrading the curriculum and accreditation standards,” he added.

Promotion 

With the downturn in visitor numbers since 2010, Jordan has been working on efforts to overhaul its marketing and promotion strategy. In recent years this has involved reaching out directly to those who can spread the word. In 2015 the JTB invited 620 journalists and bloggers to the country in order to raise awareness of the opportunities for travel, exploration and adventure.

Jordan has previously focused on specific country markets; however, it is now targeting certain market niches for promotion, such as adventure and MICE tourism. “It’s not about geography any more, but about travel motivations and psychographics. It’s much more effective. Instead of having separate operations in different markets, it is better to look at people who have the same travel motivations and reach out to them through mediums that cut across geographical markets,” Osta told OBG.

USAID, working with key players in the tourism sector, is set to spend $36m on its Building Economic Stability through Tourism programme between 2015 and 2020, with the focus on destination marketing initiatives, the creation of a stronger business-enabling environment and developing tourism assets.

In February 2017 it was announced that US-based travel website TripAdvisor and USAID were setting up a partnership to support the JTB to develop sustainable tourism, with the aim of enhancing Jordan’s digital presence on TripAdvisor’s platforms. Jordan’s Economic Growth Plan 2018-22 has also allocated JD12.5m ($17.6m) for marketing efforts to promote Jordan tourism to new markets, especially Arab and the GCC countries as well as Asia. There are suggestions that overall efforts to promote Jordan abroad are having an impact. “I think we are turning a corner, and the efforts of the MoTA are making a paradigm shift when it comes to spending on marketing and sales. This can be seen in the increase in the number of travellers,” Koth told OBG.

However, others feel more efforts are still needed in modernising the marketing approach. “Technology and online methods are the future. If you don’t pursue online strategies, you will lose this market segment. Technology needs to be a pillar in the tourism strategy,” Sabre’s Al Majali told OBG. “JTB is working on marketing the country through exhibitions, whereas I believe that’s an old approach. They need an e-marketing approach. Today, with social media and new technology you can reach anybody anywhere. So instead of investing in exhibitions, they should invest in online marketing campaigns.”

Medical Tourism 

Jordan is aiming to expand its footprint in the medical tourism industry and segments including dental, spa and wellness tourism, as well as assisted residential tourism for those with diseases or disabilities. In March 2017 Amman hosted the Global Healthcare Travel Forum, with more than 650 participants from 41 countries taking part in the two-day event to discuss challenges in the industry. According to the event organisers, Jordan currently hosts around 300,000 medical tourists a year. However, the kingdom’s medical tourism segment has been affected by the recent conflicts in the region, with the number of people arriving for treatment down 80% among Libyans, 50% among Yemenis and 48% among Sudanese since 2015. Overall, the segment saw a 40% drop in numbers in the first nine months of 2016 alone. The countries mentioned above have traditionally been among the main sources of medical tourists to Jordan, with the country now targeting patients from Kazakhstan, Chad and Nigeria, as well as growing existing markets such as Iraq, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

In March 2017, Jordan’s government introduced a new process for issuing visas to Sudanese and Yemeni nationals coming for medical tourism, with airlines now required to provide the names of Yemeni passengers to the Ministry of Interior, which will then issue visas and security clearances within 48 hours. Sudanese nationals over the age of 50 and in possession of at least $5000 have also been granted entry at border crossings.

Jordan’s Private Hospitals Association is hoping that the country will eventually have a system in place that will allow for e-visas for medical tourists to be approved within 48 hours.

Outlook 

With visitor numbers increasing once more and hotel room occupancy rates also on the rise, there are positive signs for steady sector growth. Expanded tourism offerings and a strong push to promote the country abroad could have a significant impact going forward, especially if private and public entities are able to fully utilise the potential of niche segments of the market to add to the already impressive historic and religious sites Jordan has to offer.

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