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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.

“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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