The first time I visited Jordan was back in 2003, in the days following the US invasion of Iraq. Having just fled Baghdad, I was in effect a reluctant tourist whiling away my time in the safety of Amman with other journalists as we waited for events to develop.
Meanwhile, fear of trouble in the region had kept most tourists away. Visiting the amazing ancient city of Petra, my cameraman and I were practically the only ones walking amid the enormous pink sandstone rocks into which magnificent edifices had been carved over two thousand years ago.
The Dead Sea, a popular resort for its mineral-rich waters, was literally dead, as we found ourselves the only guests sipping little glasses of hot mint tea at a seaside cafe that seemed ridiculously huge in its emptiness.
These days, similar fears about tourists staying away from this country that is rich in history, natural wonders and ancient heritage, and whose tourism revenue accounts for around 14 percent of the national income, loom large with the threat of the Islamic State group and the increasing instability of the neighboring countries.
And with good reasons, too. The number of tourists coming to Jordan had dropped by 50 percent since the end of last year to only around half a million a year. A drop big enough to spook the Jordanian government and force them to come up with a national strategy.
The mission: invite journalists and social media hacks from around the world on a mega trip and show them not only a jolly good time, but also to see for themselves that unlike its more conflict-ridden neighbors in serious danger of imploding, Jordan is an oasis of calm and stability and a haven for tourists in search of ancient history, magnificent landscapes and religious connection.
And so, hundreds of us journos and bloggers hailing from almost thirty countries around the world, find ourselves congregating in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan courtesy of the Jordanian Tourism Board, to experience what the country has to offer.
Which, of course, is a lot, even for the most difficult-to-please visitors. There is the pristine deep blue waters of Aqaba Bay, a historic port flanked by four countries, the ancient Roman city of Jerash whose amphitheater, temple, hippodrome and columns rise amid a field of daisies under which 70 percent of the city lies unexcavated.
There is Mount Nebo, where Moses spent the last days of his life and from where one can see Jerusalem and the walls of Jericho.
Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. As I put my feet in the silted river, I see a bunch of religious tourists across the river on the Israeli side, dipping their bodies in white robes as a priest gives his blessings.
And there is Petra, which on my second visit still fills me with wonder. A valley of huge sandstone rocks through millions of years of erosion and earthquakes had took on the shapes of monolithic structures with cracks that form corridors passable by humans. It was here that the ancient Arab tribe of Nabateans, who were excellent architects, settled and built their civilization of many foreign influences. The main treasure of Jordan.
There I see quite a few Indonesian tourists. Indonesians make up some 30 thousand of Jordan’s annual visitors, with most stopping by after their religious pilgrimage to Mecca. I don’t see how they will be put off by the political and security conditions in the region.
And yet, Jordan is anxious. The deteriorating situation in the Middle East is bad for its image. Not only the minister of tourism but Queen Rania herself wants to get the message out. Jordan is a stable, unified country that is perfectly safe to visit and welcome tourists with open arms. I ask her if the neighbors are giving her nightmares. She’s not too worried that Jordan’s security will be affected. Her main concern is that tourists are staying away.
“The only thing that visitors should worry about when visiting Jordan,” Queen Rania says, “is putting on weight. Jordan has a lot of great food. You won’t be able to stop eating.”
In this regard, she is right. After a week of hummus, mouttabal, goat cheese, and plenty of lamb kebabs and shawarmas, my waist is definitely expanding.
Desi Anwar is a senior anchor at Metro TV. She can be reached at desianwar.com or dailyavocado.net.
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