July 3, 2005

With full hotels, Jordan enjoys tourist boom

By Suleiman al-Khalidi

DEAD SEA, Jordan (Reuters) - Cranes work day and night tocomplete the 365-room Kempinski resort on the Dead Sea. Nearby,a cluster of resorts is doing unprecedented business.

The activity hails the emergence of Jordan's once sleepyborder strip with Israel as a top regional retreat with adiverse clientele from global executives and Gulf businessmento U.S. commanders taking a break from conflict in Iraq

Since last year international hotel chains in Jordan haveseen almost full occupancy rates for the first time since amulti-billion-dollar investment spree a decade ago by investorspinning hopes on an elusive Middle East peace dividend.

"The tourism boom in the last 12 months including thebuoyant business activity has almost doubled occupancy levelsat the country's five star hotels to a high of 85 percent,"said Michael Nazzal, president of the Jordan Hotel Association.

After lagging behind its competitors like upscale rebuiltdowntown Beirut, or metropolitan Cairo, Jordan's capital Ammanis catching up as a regional business and tourism hub whereonce quiet neighborhoods are now dotted with lively nightspots.

Commercial streets are crowded with the latest U.S.franchised food outlets and shopping malls.

Industry executives said Jordan's resort business wasbenefiting from regional political uncertainty divertingholidaymakers to the country along with a post Iraq war boomfueled by demand from wealthy Iraqis to U.S. servicemen ontheir way to Iraq or using the country as a logistics base.

"We are benefiting from being a gateway to Iraq andPalestine," said Saleh Refai, general manager of ZaraInvestment Holdings, the country's largest hotel investmentholding firm.

The expanding business was transforming the country withits 18,000 hotel room capacity into a regional corporateconference hub, drawing multinational to U.N. bodies andinternational charities from Europe and Asia.

The kingdom boasts a capacity of more than 5,000 five-starhotel rooms.


Jordan's Western tourists are trickling back after theirnumbers dropped dramatically following a pullback in travelafter the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

Some 1.74 million tourists stayed overnight in Jordan lastyear, a 7.4 percent increase from the previous year.

Busloads of tourists near downtown Amman's Romanamphitheater and other sites where groups of Spanish, Italianand German tourists mingle with locals have become a commonsight, tour operators say.

"European and even American tourists are slowly coming backto Jordan which they had shunned because of fears of troublesin Iraq and Palestine," said Nassar Kawar, head of Petra Tours.

Arab Gulf tourists deterred by bad news and violence inLebanon and Egypt are also switching this summer season toJordan -- seen as a safe haven from violence.

Official figures show that Arab Gulf arrivals rose 32percent to 466,592 in 2004 from the previous year.

"Gulf visitors are our main tourists and we hope to havebigger arrivals," said Mazen Homoud, head of the Jordan TourismBoard, the official marketing body that had focused this yearon a promotion campaign to attract high spending tourists.

The tourism boom is encouraging more reliance on theindustry which officials say has attracted $1.7 billion oflocal and foreign investments in recent years and is now thecountry's biggest foreign exchange earner.

"We have high expectations of sustainable growth and therecent upgrading of the infrastructure of tourism is showingresults," said Alia Bouran, Minister of Tourism andAntiquities.

Bouran said investors were attracted by unprecedented taxincentives to foreigners, citing large projects under way suchas resorts in the Red Sea town of Aqaba, once a drab port.

She said the outlook for the year was even more promisingthan last year when receipts rose to $1 billion, a 4.5 percentrise from the previous year.

Industry experts reckon the country which officials tout asone of the region's fastest-growing tourist destinations wasalso poised to cash in on a growing trend for religious,archaeological and ecological tourism.

The city of Petra, the country's main tourist magnet, wasseeing this year a three-fold rise in visitors, mostlyEuropeans and some Americans, Bouran said.

But Bouran cautioned that ambitious plans could falter ifthe region's political turmoil spills over into widerbloodshed.

"The tourism sector is very fragile, it is highly dependenton what happens around us and the fear factor is still therewith the image of the Middle East as a trouble spot, but wepromote Jordan as a safe stand alone destination," Bouranadded.