Jordanian tourism seeks papal blessing

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.

“Such an important visit gives Jordan an additional tool to say that it is a peaceful nation, that it is right in the middle of the Holy Land, and it has all those sites that the Pope is going to visit,” said Michael Nazzal, president of the Jordan Hotel Association. “It really is an added tool for marketing Jordan.”

Tourism officials here agree that the last visit by a pope — in 2000 — was a lost opportunity. Many sites, including the baptism site of Jesus, weren't fully ready to accommodate tourists.

Meanwhile, the Sept. 11 attacks and the start of the Second Intifada in Israel and the Palestinian Territories made Western tourists wary of visiting the region.

But now, with a 20 percent increase in the number of hotel rooms throughout the kingdom, improved tourism sites, and a decrease in violence in neighboring countries, Nayef al-Fayez, managing director of the Jordan Tourism Board, said the country is ready to reap the commercial benefits of a papal visit.

“Now it’s nine years down the road and things have changed,” Fayez said. “Many people in the Western world do not recognize that Jordan is part of the Holy Land ... [But] the Pope is saying that he’s happy to start his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in Jordan and that shows you that Jordan is part of the Holy Land.”

Tourism makes up 14.7 percent of Jordan’s gross domestic product — only remittances from abroad contribute a larger percentage to the GDP — so whether the nation can cash in on this opportunity may bear heavily on its economic future.

Those in the tourism sector say business has been steadily growing over the last two years, and despite a slow first quarter this year many expect the upward trend to continue into 2009.

Still, it’s unlikely the Pope’s visit will be Jordan’s saving grace.

“I don’t think it’s going to have a major impact,” said Rohit Talwar, CEO of Fast Future Research, a travel and tourism research and consulting agency in London. “You might see it having a sort of low percentage point increase in the number of people going, sort of 5 to 10 percent.”

Even those on the front lines of Jordan’s tourism industry admit that while the papal visit represents a significant opportunity, Jordan has relatively few attractions, and despite there being room for improvement it will never trump its neighbors as an international destination.

“Nobody can compete with Jerusalem and Bethlehem,” said Muhsen Makhamreh, dean of the Jordan Applied University, College of Hospitality and Tourism Education. “But I think that it’s picking up and Jordan will be a place for Christian pilgrimage.”

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