Wandering around the marvel that is Petra, I wonder where all the people are. It’s summer, and should be the beginning of the high season for tourism. In the shaded Siq leading down to the buildings carved into the red rock face a couple of coach parties wander towards the site at around midday, but if you walk the same route in the morning or evening, you’ll probably only see a couple of other people, most of them locals. If you wander to a further out part of the ancient city you feel as if you have the whole place to yourself.
Jordan is home not just to Petra- one of the wonders of the world- but also four other World Heritage Sites, Jerash (some of the best Roman ruins I’ve ever seen), Wadi Rum (a Mars-red expanse of remote desert) being only two examples. I’ve lived here for almost a year, travelled around the country most weekends, and still haven’t seen it all. However the story of solitude in Petra is repeated at almost every site I’ve visited. Despite this impressive list of tourist attractions, Jordan’s tourist industry is struggling. The first quarter drop this year is over 11%.
When I visited Wadi Rum my guide told me how he used struggle to fit all of the visitors who wanted to come into his calendar, but now he struggles to fill enough dates to keep going. In Jerash, a local selling tea tells me that the site is much less visited that several years ago. He wistfully talks about how he hopes that the visitors will increase soon, not just so that his sales increase, but also so that more people experience the beauty of the ruins, and of Jordan.
The problem stems from the region’s instability and the constant stream of negative news about the area. Jordan is very stable, has a strong army and government, but potential visitors only focus on the bordering countries. Syria lies to the North, Palestine and Israel to the West and Iraq to the East. All of these countries feature in the news every day with new headlines about the death and destruction that ravages them. Most people don’t want to be that close to danger, even if it is actually incredibly unlikely to affect them. The fact that Jordan has seen fewer successful terrorist attacks than many of the major European capitals in recent years does little to convince wary tourists.
It’s not just the numbers of Westerners visiting Jordan that are on the decrease. Tourists from the Middle East have also fallen, as the people are too busy focusing on the changes in their own country to travel the region. Instead of tourists from places such as Syria, Jordan now has thousands of refugees coming from the country- there are over 600,000 registered refugees in Jordan from Syria alone.
The government has called several emergency meetings to discuss what can be done to counter these ever falling numbers. Reduction in fees to enter Petra (currently sky-high), reduction in flight prices, have all been discussed in an attempt to entice visitors in. Thus far, these remain ideas rather than a reality, and measures put in place have been to no avail.