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Jordanian tourism seeks papal blessing

Amman, long ignored as a Holy Land stopover, is determined to capitalize on Pope Benedict's visit.

Jordan's King Abdullah (C) speaks to Pope Benedict XVI, as Queen Rania stands nearby, upon the Pope's arrival at Queen Alia International airport in Amman May 8, 2009. Pope Benedict arrived in Amman on Friday as the first stop on a tour of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

AMMAN, Jordan — Among the hundreds of reporters coming to Jordan to cover Pope Benedict XVI’s three-day visit that started Friday are 25 South American journalists. The Jordanian government spent tens of thousands of dollars flying in the reporters, most of them from Brazil, for a five-star tour of the country and an all-access pass to cover the papal visit.

Their first question upon arriving: Why us?

The answer, according to Jordan’s minister of tourism and antiquities, is simple: Their articles reach the largest Catholic population in the world, a market Jordan would very much like to tap.

“They’ve said, ‘You’ll travel around, have some nice meals, stay in good hotels and then you’ll write something good about us, and it’s paid for,’” said Daniel Buarque, a reporter for Brazil’s G1, who had expected more smoke and mirrors about the government’s motives for bringing him here. “I don’t like the idea, but it makes sense for them, and at least they’re coming clean to us and saying that openly.”

With Pope Benedict XVI starting his first Middle East tour in Jordan, Buarque’s guided tour is just one small part of a strategy to use the papal visit to boost tourism in Jordan.

“We are trying to capitalize on this visit,” said Maha Khatib, Jordan’s minister of tourism and antiquities. “We created interest, we created visibility, and all these people coming here to cover the story, it’s an excellent opportunity.”

The spotlight is indeed on Jordan. An estimated 600 reporters have descended on the country to cover the Pope’s visit and hotels are reporting 100 percent occupancy rates during the three-day papal pilgrimage.

Located next to Israel and the Palestinian territories — home to some of the most sacred religious sites for Muslims, Christians and Jews — and across the Red Sea from Egypt’s storied pharaonic attractions, Jordan is often overshadowed as a tourism destination. Yet it is home to attractions such as the baptism site of Jesus and Mt. Nebo where Moses first saw the Promised Land. It also has historic sites such as the ancient city of Petra, recently voted one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.