Religious Tourism: a Sector’s Salvation?

Pope Francis’ recent trip to Jordan showcased to the world the important role that the Kingdom has played in the rich history of the Holy Land. The benefits of attracting more of the world’s faithful to visit Jordan’s many religious sites are clear, but will it be enough to pull the tourism sector out of its rut?

By Jane Hosking

Photography by Alaa’ al-Sukhny

As light from the fading evening sun shone through the windows of the church at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the crowd positioned themselves eagerly to get a better view of Pope Francis, who was visiting the site where Jesus is believed to have been baptized as part of a wider trip to the Holy Land in May. An army of journalists, photographers and camera crews were on hand to relay the interfaith-focused visit to the world, which is also expected to give Jordan’s struggling tourism industry a boost by helping to promote the Kingdom as a pilgrimage destination for billions of Christians and Muslims.

Jordan’s tourism sector, which contributes up to 14 percent of GDP, needs all the help it can get right now. In 2013, the number of tourists who visited the Kingdom dropped 14 percent to almost 5.4 million. There have been slight signs of improvement since last year, but nothing to match the runaway performance of the sector before the Arab Spring and the global economic downturn hit. Between 2004 and 2010, visitor numbers grew from just over 5.5 million to more than 8.2 million, while revenues leapt from JD 943 million to more than JD 2.4 billion.

The sector is now hoping to find salvation through religious tourism. With an eye on the UN’s World Tourism Organization’s estimation that more than 300 million people go on pilgrimages each year, Jordan’s tourism sector has decided to start developing the Kingdom’s potential as a destination for Christian and Muslim pilgrims. Abed Al Razzaq Arabiyat, the Managing Director of the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB), said his team had recently begun focusing its marketing efforts on Jordan’s religious sites. “There is big potential for religious tourism and it’s less sensitive to the political situation. We realize that we have to redefine our product and present ourselves in a different way,” he said.

A Divine Destination

Jordan is indeed home to many significant sites in both biblical and Islamic history. Father Nabil Haddad, founder and executive director of The Jordan Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, speaks passionately on this point. “Jordan is a biblical museum. It hosts 80 percent of the biblical geography. We have to realize when we look at Jordan that it is a holy land,” he said. Father Haddad, who is a priest in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, believes the Baptism Site is one of the top three most holy places in Christianity, along with Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulture in Jerusalem. “The Lord Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. However, Christianity was born here,” he said, also noting the significance of other sites, such as the Church of the Map in Madaba and Mount Nebo.

Nabil Haddad, Founder and Executive Director of the Jordan Interfaith Coexistence Research Center

Nabil Haddad, Founder and Executive Director of the Jordan Interfaith Coexistence Research Center

The attraction of Jordan as a popular site for Muslim tourists is also an increasing focus of efforts to bring more visitors to the Kingdom. Olga Zubkova, who until recently was the manager of Dahlan Tours and Travel, a Jordanian based travel company, said that while Christian visitors are still higher in number than Muslims, there’s a growing number of Muslim pilgrims coming to Jordan. She explained that along with the significant Islamic holy sites, including the tombs of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions in the northern and southern Mazar areas. Jordan is also an attractive destination for Muslims to visit during Ramadan, a time when many Muslims from Europe and the GCC countries come. She noted too that many Muslims are already coming to the region to visit Mecca and that there is an opportunity for Jordan to draw them across while they are in the region.

Although the instability of the region has taken its toll on Jordan’s tourism sector as a whole, Zubkova explained that in terms of attracting tourists from the GCC, there has actually been an increase in numbers as there are now fewer travel options in the region. With these Arabs from the Gulf reportedly spending around $20 billion on vacations every year, according to the World Tourism Organization, this is a market that Jordan can significantly benefit from. “The travel agencies, the JTB and the Ministry of Tourism have been doing quite a lot in the last two years to attract Muslim travelers,” said Zubkova, adding that these tourists are also easier to attract than other international tourists.

Thank Heavens for Growth

While Jordan is not yet attracting a high number of religious tourists, the new focus of the tourism strategy is beginning to build momentum. Statistics from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities show that from January to March 2014, the Kingdom attracted 3.1 percent more individual tourists and 4.7 percent more group arrivals than over the same period last year. Tourism Minister Nidal Katamine, reported in June that overall tourism revenues increased by 14 percent during the first six months of this year, amounting to JD1.3 billion, compared with JD1.1 billion for the same period in 2013. According to the Ministry, job numbers declined after the shocks to the industry in 2011 but have since grown by 6,500 to approximately 48,465.

At least some of this growth can be attributed to religious tourism. The Baptism Site reportedly increased in visitors by 13.7 percent from January to May this year, in comparison to the same period last year. This is likely to continue to see even further growth after the visit of Pope Francis. Overall, there has been an 8.3 percent increase of in tourists visiting the top five Christian religious sites in Jordan for the first quarter of 2014, verses the same period in 2013. A push by the JTB to attract Muslim tourists from Asian countries has also seen results with a significant increase in tourists coming from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and India.

Despite this growth, there is still much to be done to tap the potential of the Kingdom’s religious sites. This is demonstrated no better than by the Palestinian side of the Baptism Site which attracts over half a million tourists and pilgrims annually. While Jordan’s site is archaeologically and theologically believed to be the authentic historical location, the annual number of tourists was only 86,339 in 2013. Zubkova notes that this can be attributed largely to the long history of promoting the religious sites in and around Jerusalem. “The other side of the river has been promoted for many years,” she said. “Their tourism is older than Jordan itself as a country.” Father Haddad also noted that Jordan’s window of opportunity for religious pilgrimage has only just opened in some places, with the Baptism Site only becoming accessible to tourists since the year 2000. 

The revival of the tourism sector will no doubt be welcomed by the many private stakeholders in the Kingdom. Zubkova explained that the industry and travel companies have faced many challenges and lost many potential partners since 2011 and this is still taking its toll. She explained that a number of German travel companies have removed the whole Middle East area from their brochures and aren’t doing sales for the Middle East anymore. “They’d rather go to the safe and secure destinations,” she said, explaining that many potential tourists don’t distinguish between the different countries in the Middle East and are afraid of the violence that they see on TV in surrounding countries. While she noted an improvement in the last year, she said that before the Arab Spring business was much better. “If you’re talking about 2014 verses 2010, I’d prefer to have 2010 business back. But comparing to 2013, 2014 is looking way better,” she said.

Promotion Push

The JTB said it’s working hard to build on this year’s momentum. “We have a specialized marketing plan for different countries,” said Arabiyat, explaining that the board is reaching out to many new markets, especially those in Latin America, North America, Europe, and parts of Africa, where there are a high number of potential Christian pilgrims. They have also launched an educational road show in various Asian countries to market Jordan to potential Muslim pilgrims. In addition to this, next year the JTB will host a Jordan Travel Mart, a big event for religious leaders and tour operators to come to Jordan to visit the sites and have meetings with local suppliers. Arabiyat hopes that by bringing these religious and industry leaders to experience the product, this will increase numbers further.

Abed al Razzaq Arabiyat, Managing Director of the Jordan Tourism Board JTB)

Abed al Razzaq Arabiyat, Managing Director of the Jordan Tourism Board JTB)

But it’s not just the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the JTB alone that are working towards drawing religious pilgrims to Jordan. Father Haddad said that there is wide support in the local community to promote Jordan as a site of pilgrimage. “We are building on the momentum of the Pope’s visit,” he said, explaining that, the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center is actively reaching out to Christian communities throughout the world to invite them to Jordan. “We are working on an action plan where we are going to reach all continents,” he said, adding that this involves connecting with religious leaders, stakeholders, hotels, and tour operators. Father Haddad also shared his hopes to initiate an annual international event at the Baptism Site in January; for all denominations to gather and celebrate the baptism of Jesus.

Continuing obstacles remain for the tourism industry, including, but not limited to the regional turmoil. Arabiyat cites the cost of air travel as one of the biggest obstacles to growth. He said that because low cost carriers are no longer coming to Jordan due to high taxes, tourists are being deterred. He expects that the recent exit of EasyJet will have an impact on the numbers, but hopes to convince the airline to fly to Aqaba. Arabiyat also cited the low budget of the JTB as a challenge to marketing the Kingdom internationally. He said that JTB’s budget of JD 7 million to promote Jordan is insignificant compared to the double figured budgets of its competitors, such as Turkey and Egypt.

Despite the troubles of the region and other obstacles, the shift in the tourism strategy’s focus towards religious tourism will likely bring about more growth for the sector. Arabiyat is confident that things will continue to improve amid plans to further invest in tourism infrastructure to make the religious sites in Jordan more attractive and accessible. He said that there is a lot of potential developments, and expects that with the way things are currently changing, there will be big improvements in the years ahead.