Tourism SOS

Despite the big international marketing drive that was recently undertaken by the Jordan Tourism Board, other players in the Kingdom’s tourism sector still say a much more concerted strategy is needed to help them escape their slump.

By Rebecca Irvine

It’s no secret that tourism in Jordan is suffering. You only need to walk through Petra or visit the Dead Sea to notice that the numbers of tourists visiting these iconic locations aren’t anywhere near what they used to be, thanks to several years of regional turmoil.

Among those hardest hit in the sector are tour operators and hotel managers. Omar Hazineh is resort manager of the Dead Sea’s Ramada hotel. “The numbers are not good,” he said, citing a more than 10 percent decrease in his hotel’s occupancy rates.

Since the geopolitical situation in the region worsened, the industry has been affected severely, Hazineh explained, with these recent months being the worst the whole industry has ever seen. In practice, this has meant a difficult year for the resort, as they are forced to absorb significant costs from the drop in revenue. In recent months, the only viable business coming to the Dead Sea resorts is from the local market, either for leisure or for business conferences.

It’s not just hotels that are feeling the pinch. Tourism is one of the most important sectors of the Jordanian economy, and the industry generated over JD2 billion in 2010. While hotels and resorts are some of the obvious businesses that are affected, transportation companies, guides, restaurants, and even souvenir shops further down the line all lose out in this situation from the domino effect. Perhaps most of all though, as those who solely deal with travel from abroad, inbound tour operators in Jordan are seeing significant and unprecedented losses.

Arwa Mahadin, general manager of Tyche Tours—a tour operator that specializes in tourism from Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, and other central Asian countries—shared many of the fears. Hazineh has about plummeting tourist numbers. But without the local markets to fall back on, the situation is arguably worse, with a drop of 60 percent in the past year. While Tyche Tours used to cater for 7,000 tourists from Russia per year, in 2015 they didn’t even reach 1,000.

An Insurmountable Challenge?

In this situation, it’s hard to see what could be done. Jordan’s geographical location in the region undoubtedly causes fear for many tourists who simply want to stay away in the present context. For their part, the government, through the Ministry of Tourism and the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB), is trying hard. In an interview with Venture in November, Minister of Tourism Nayef al-Fayez outlined the government’s proposals that aim to help local businesses stay afloat during the crisis. These include amending hotels’ electricity tariffs into industrial tariffs, which significantly cuts electricity bills; waiving visa fees for groups and individual travelers coming into Jordan through tour operators with a minimum stay of two consecutive nights; and the reduction in visa fees for all land borders. The recently launched Jordan Pass also offers tourists the chance to buy a single ticket to access all of the Kingdom’s major archaeological sites and museums.

So what do those in the industry make of these policies? Hazineh at least is pleased with the measures that reduce pressure on his resort’s financial statements. “The electricity tariff was a great move and we’ve been pushing for that for ages,” he explained. Further easing of pressure in the form of postponed tax and social security payments would be welcomed too, he added.

For the tour operators, however, change isn’t coming fast enough. Existing and newly introduced rules and regulations are preventing operators from feeling the same reduction in their financial burden.

“We have been spending lots of money in order to keep the agencies going, but every day there are new rules and regulations,” said Mahadin, who manages the family business. She cited an example of a proposed policy that would mean agents pay a daily rate for tourist police to accompany tours. With the already relatively high cost of living in Jordan, tour operators don’t need more fees put into the agencies, she said, as this will only make things less and less attractive for tourists.

In this vein, one solution, according to Hazineh, lies in the urgent need to address the cost of air travel to the Kingdom, which can be prohibitively high. The airport too could play its part, with landing fees and associated costs causing low cost carriers like EasyJet to pull out in recent years.

“The reason Dubai succeeded was because of the airline—then everything just follows,” Hazineh explained. “You need to get the people, the masses. If Royal Jordanian is not part of it, maybe someone else will be,” he added, noting that often tourists arrive by Turkish Airlines or Emirates due to the cheaper options they offer. According to Hazineh, in recent cross-industry discussions on the potential creation of a “national package”—offering reduced hotels, transportation, and booking—it was the national carrier, Royal Jordanian, that could not make concessions in their prices.

For their part, Royal Jordanian responded that they didn’t refuse to lower the prices, stating that “Royal Jordanian, in coordination with the JTB and the Tourism Agent Associations has provided a very low fare to be combined with the incoming packages, and these fares are still available in the market.”

Perception is Everything

The problems the industry is facing, it seems, go far deeper than any quick fix to tariffs and taxes will be able to solve. It is the topic of how to market Jordan that our conversations with the industry’s representatives return to again and again. Ghada Najjar, chairman of the Jordan Inbound Tour Operator Association (JITOA) and managing director of Karma House for Travel and Tourism, emphasized the important role the government has in leading the industry’s marketing strategies. “Once we know that the JTB is running a whole year campaign in a certain country, we follow as the private sector.” It’s for this reason that the tour operators and hotel managers are so keen for the government strategy to be properly fit for purpose.

“They’re trying very hard—that’s for sure. They are always at the big conferences, the shows. They are always participating,” Hazineh explained. The recent release of The Martian, a big budget science fiction film that featured Jordan’s Wadi Rum as the Red Planet, is one example of the way the government has recently sought to gain publicity internationally. The tour operators welcomed moves such as this by the JTB and the Ministry of Tourism, but beyond the initial “buzz” they were able to create, they question what the real impact on the ground has been.

What needs to be avoided is the desire to try to market Jordan to the masses in an attempt to attract anyone at all. “We’re not really Sharm el-Sheikh,” Mahadin explained. “Jordan has its own taste and its own brand.” A more innovative marketing plan is what is roundly suggested as desperately needed. While the international media paints a picture that puts many off visiting the Middle East, a variety of media channels and work alongside “media influencers” could help to turn the tide in Jordan’s favor. Najjar mentioned the bloggers and writers who were invited by the JTB in the past year to visit Jordan, and stressed the need to ensure they pass the message on internationally.

This also means accepting that from some regions, tourists are unlikely to flock in huge numbers to the Kingdom at present, and setting sights instead on more “resilient” markets. These are tourists in countries across Asia, Eastern Europe, and increasingly, South America, where the government is largely failing to direct its attention, in favor of the more traditional markets in Western Europe. “We spend a lot of money in France, but it is still a very sensitive market, and we know that they will not come to our region,” Mahadin pointed out. Indeed, in JTB’s strategy, France is highlighted among the top countries to market to.

Similarly, Najjar wasn’t convinced that the government has a crisis management plan, something that was echoed across the board. “We should have a plan, whether it’s local or regional. If something happens, then we go in with this plan,” she argued. The recent tragedy of the plane crash in Sharm el-Sheikh is an example of a situation where such a plan was needed. While other governments in the region and those who are competitors to Jordanian tourism, such as the Israeli government, were fast in their response in the wake of the crash, the response from Jordan has been slower, and for many, left something to be desired. After the plane crash, the Israeli ministry of tourism was immediately marketing the destination to tourists in the Russian market. “Here we are still preparing and getting quotations. So we are late in taking action to what is happening around us and looking into how to bring tourists into our country,” Mahadin said. Najjar agrees: “When the Russian plane went down, we should have had a plan immediately—gone to the Russian market and said come to us.”

This, they said, is all about perceptions, and convincing tourists that Jordan remains a safe haven in the region is vital, as the country is undoubtedly suffering from the region’s bad reputation. “People abroad, they don’t know the difference. They don’t know that Jordan is different,” Najjar said. Passing on this message to the right people, therefore, is the crucial challenge.

In the face of all this, can there be any cause for hope right now? Perhaps putting on a brave face, those in the industry certainly claimed to think so. Tourism in Jordan has, after all, faced similar—if not quite as bad—dips before. “Personally, I’m extremely positive,” Hazineh said. “We just need to make sure that everyone is dancing to the same tune.” That, it seems, is the first problem that needs to be addressed.