For a few balmy, sun-filled days in late February, the third annual Jordan Travel Mart (JTM) convened on the shores of the Dead Sea. Bringing together government officials, Jordanian suppliers, and travel professionals and journalists from North and South America, the event showcased Jordan’s touristic riches. Moreover, the trade show was an optimistic affirmation of the country’s promotional strategy. While the global economic crisis humbled the travel industry in 2009, Jordan showed remarkable resilience, with a 1.6 percent increase in overnight visitors. “We can’t help but be cautiously optimistic about 2010,” declared Nayef Al-Fayez, managing director of the Jordan Tourism Board, at the opening breakfast.
Since we first attended the JTM in 2008, we’ve witnessed the successful strategy of the Jordan Tourism Board North America (JTBNA) in marketing the country as a stand-alone destination in niche markets: religious/faith, history/culture, eco/nature, leisure/wellness, adventure, and voluntourism. Emphasizing Jordan’s year-round moderate climate and the diversity of its product, the JTBNA strives to increase the length of stay of American visitors. A major part of the economy (13 percent of GDP), tourism is the second foreign-currency earner after migrant work remittances, and the U.S. travel market is second only to the Arab region.
Beyond the obvious lure of its historical and natural wonders—from the lost city of Petra to the Dead Sea to Jesus’ baptism site at Bethany beyond the Jordan River—Jordan appeals because of the kingdom’s commitment to peace, safety and tolerance. Smack dab in the heart of the Middle East, stage to some of the most important events in world history, Jordan is a window to a unique part of the world. Here, sustainable tourism is both a means of fostering an understanding between cultures, and a development tool for local communities. In fact, USAID has invested significantly in tourism infrastructure across the country: walking trails at Petra, pottery workshops for local women and storefront facades in Madaba.
Notably, cultural engagement and experiential travel is increasingly a priority for Americans, as emphasized by JTM partners Virtuoso and the American Tourism Society (ATS). In keynote addresses, both Albert M. Herrera, vice president, hotels, destinations & tours at Virtuoso, and Phil Otterson, president of the ATS, highlighted the current trend among consumers of prioritizing authentic cultural experiences in their travels. And Jordan’s impressive cultural heritage is a huge draw.
Travel agents and operators in attendance stressed their desire to develop Jordan-only programs. Pamela Hoffee, vice president, product & operations for Globus, attended the pre-tour in order to expand her company’s Jordan product outside of the religious travel market, where it’s been focused. Chris Burras, president of Worldwide Travel Center, will have Jordan-only itineraries for the first time this year; his previous Jordan business has been an extension of Israel and Egypt tours. Michelle Finkelstein of Our Personal Guest explored Jordan’s luxury offerings for her affluent clients, and informed Travel Agent that Karma House, a Jordanian tour operator, will soon offer luxury camping experiences in the Wadi Rum desert. For one of her customized trips, Karma House even secured a private plane for a VIP. To learn more about featuring Jordan in your itineraries, contact Malia Asfour ([email protected], 1-877-SEE-JORDAN), director of the JTBNA, based in Mclean, VA.
Buzz-worthy: The Jordanian government recently announced a new hotel classification system to improve the worldwide competitiveness of hotels in the country.
Our seven-day pre-tour itinerary could easily be replicated for clients seeking an introduction to Jordan. Insiders tell us that Ibrahim Abdelhaq (011-962-6562-0941, [email protected]) is the top tour guide in Jordan, and after a second countrywide journey with Ibrahim, we concur. Starting in the cosmopolitan city of Amman, where we explored the souk and the Citadel, we ventured on a day-trip to Jerash, one of the best-preserved ancient Roman cities in the Near East.
Not to be missed: The Roman Army and Chariot Experience (RACE) in the restored hippodrome, the largest Roman reenactment in the world, complete with battling gladiators.
Next up: The Evason Ma’in Hot Springs & Six Senses Spa is a destination in itself since its debut in 2009. The resort is just 19 miles from Madaba, where we viewed the famous sixth-century Byzantine mosaics. At 264 meters below sea level and surrounded by dramatic red-rock scenery, the resort is built adjacent to the hot springs and waterfalls known for their healing properties (and once frequented by King Herod). In fact, the spa itself is under one of the hot waterfalls, its pools fed by the naturally heated cascades. From the lavish breakfast spread to the organic touches in-room, the resort’s facilities are top-notch. For assistance with bookings, contact Sales & Group Coordinator Lora Artiola (011-962-5324-5500, [email protected]).
Another noteworthy property: Feynan Ecolodge in the Dana Biosphere Reserve is home to endangered wildlife like the Syrian wolf and Sinai Agama lizard (a brilliant turquoise in color). Run by Bedouins, the solar-powered Feynan Ecolodge is an example of how nature conservation and sustainable economic development can empower a local community. Candlelit at night, Feynan is utterly romantic. Whitewashed rooms have beds with draped mosquito netting; each bathroom has lighting and a hot-water shower. The hotel is managed by Eco Hotels in partnership with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature.
A trip to Jordan is not complete without seeing the lost city of Petra. To get there, we took the King’s Highway, the 5,000-year-old trade route once traveled by Moses and the Israelites. Along the way, we stopped at Mount Nebo, where Moses looked out over the Promised Land. Deep within a labyrinth of sandstone canyons, Petra emerges in all its glory—a city carved from red sandstone. Your clients could easily spend a few days there, as Petra’s historical site extends much farther beyond the Treasury (where Indiana Jones finds the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and encompasses many trails. Recommend Petra by Night for an unforgettable view of the site lit by thousands of candles. For accommodations, the place to book is the recently renovated Mövenpick Resort Petra at the gates of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Continuing south, we camped with Bedouins under the stars in the Wadi Rum Desert, before soaking up the sun and snorkeling in the Red Sea at Aqaba. We ended our itinerary by looping back to the Dead Sea, recently nominated as one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World. The spa resorts at the lowest place on earth are world-class: Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea, designed in stone to resemble the old village of Jerusalem; Jordan Valley Marriott Resort & Spa; Kempinski Hotel Ishtar, home to the largest spa in the Middle East; and newest of all, the four-star Holiday Inn Resort, boasting the longest swimming pool on the Dead Sea coast.