(MENAFN - Arab News) From music and art festivals to stunning landscapes and ancient ruins, Jordanian officials say the kingdom is ready to welcome large numbers of visitors from the oil-rich Gulf states and Europe this summer.
Like most of the Middle East, this small kingdom has seen growing popular pressure for reform, with street protests sweeping the country. But unlike Egypt and Syria, Jordan has been remarkably stable and tourists are coming back.
Tourism was down by 16.5 percent in 2011, according to Jordanian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Nayef Al-Fayes, who reported that Jordan's tourism sector lost 1 billion when bookings by European tour operators were canceled.
But this summer, as wealthy tourists from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are planning their summer vacations, Jordan is again an attractive destination, and major cities are expecting unprecedented traffic congestion.
During the month of May, when the inferno of the Gulf summer starts, tourism revenues grew by nearly 40 percent as the number of visitors from the Gulf started climbing, some of them escaping to Jordan to beat the heat, which is often cooler than the Gulf.
Financial experts from the currency exchange industry say there has been a surge in demand for the Jordanian dinar, mostly from wealthy Gulf visitors. That rising demand, coupled with financial transactions of Jordanian expatriates in the Gulf, which reached nearly 1 billion, consolidated the strength of the dinar, despite the disastrous financial situation of the government.Tourism industry experts say revenues will be essential to help the country deal with its severe financial difficulties, in which foreign debt stands at 20 billion while the fiscal budget is running with a deficit of more than 2 billion.
Meanwhile, the Jordan Hotel Association reports that hotel occupancy currently stands at an average rate of 80 percent, but a 100 percent occupancy rate is expected in days to come. Tourism is one of the most important components of the Jordanian economy which has few natural resources to draw upon.
Al-Fayes said the government is planning a series of summer festival in Amman, Jerash, Karak, Fuheis and other parts of the kingdom. The Jerash summer festival kicks of this week, promising visitors an array of activities for families including concerts by famous artists, musical shows and cultural activities.
Amman will also see a variety of street festivals with artists and musicians including samba bands, fire breathing acrobats, and stilt-walkers to entertain local residents and visitors.
The government said it has taken measures to boost its tourism revenues by making it easier for foreign tourists to come and by imposing higher fees to key tourist sites such as Petra and Wadi Rum. A one-day entrance to Petra, for example, costs 125, although the fee goes down if a tourist stays in Jordan overnight.
Jordan is benefiting from the growing instability in Egypt and Lebanon, two major destinations for Gulf holiday-makers. But officials from Jordan's tourism board believe there is a room for more tourists.
Jordan has been banking on the unique natural wonders of Petra and the Dead Sea to lure visitors from Europe, while at the same time relaxing its laws over drinking and night life to accommodate needs of other market segments. Abdul Razaq Arabiat, a senior official at the Jordan Tourism Board, believes changes in the region carry with them new opportunities.
"The current political, economic and social changes as well as market trends represent a major challenge to tourism, but also provide new opportunities," he told The Media Line, saying that the government has worked on promoting its continued stability during a time of uncertainty in the region. "We have invited more than 400 journalists this year to show how the situation in Jordan is stable."
n Abdullah Omar writes for The Media Line Middle East News website (www.themedialine.org).