Even Indiana Jones Can’t Shield Jordan From Middle East Fighting

Business is anything but brisk at the Indiana Jones gift store in Petra.

Before the start of the uprisings that toppled Middle East leaders and thrust Syria into a civil war in 2011, owner Majed al-Nawwaf made as much as 400 dinars ($565) a day. Last Thursday, he sold just one item: traditional checkered headdress bought by a Jordanian high-school student for 3 dinars.

“We shop owners are consoling each other,” said Nawwaf, who named his store after Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The 1989 movie includes scenes shot in Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Outsiders don’t understand there’s no war in Jordan, no ‘black’ spring.”

Maintaining security and reviving the economy are the main challenges to Jordan, a key U.S. ally bordering one of the world’s deadliest conflict zones. The kingdom can barely cope with an influx of 1.5 million Syrians, while the bulk of its overland trade with Europe has been choked off after the recent closure of the only remaining entry route to Syria.

Revenue from tourism makes up 13 percent of Jordan’s $34 billion economy, Nayef al-Fayez, minister of tourism and antiquities, said at his office in Amman. In Petra, visitor numbers are down more than 60 percent since 2010, he said.

Worst Ever

Two hotels in the city have closed and a third is planning to, he said. Others have reduced the number of workers to a minimum and dropped their capacity, he said.

On a recent Petra by Night tour, there were hardly 150 tourists walking down the candlelit path to the Treasury, the city’s main attraction. Before 2011, the place would be packed by hundreds of tourists, said Mahmoud Halalat, 65, who has been a Petra guide for 38 years.

“This is the worst period ever,” he said.

Jordan has been a relative beacon of stability, involved in the strikes on Islamic State and managing to keep a lid on any jihadi movement at home, at least for now. The perception abroad is different, according to Jordanians.

Tourist numbers are down by more than half compared with four years ago. About 2.8 million tourists visited Jordan in the first 11 months of 2014, compared with 8 million in 2010, according to the Tourism Ministry.

“The sadness is the lack of tourism,” said Mike Giles, 72, a pilot from the U.K. who was starting a day tour of Petra with his wife, Maggie, a year younger. “We’re not worried at all,” she said. “Jordan is safe.”

‘Misperception’

The couple lives in Dubai and they’re the kind of tourists that Jordan is trying to attract, according to Fayez, the minister. Jordan is also asking tour operators to explain that though the country sits in a very unstable region, it hasn’t witnessed the kind of violence its neighbors have.

“The problem is not in Jordan,” said Fayez. “The problem is with the misperception.”

Another reason tourism has gone down is because Jordan is expensive and the government’s economic policy has failed, said economist Yusuf Mansour, chief executive officer of Envision Consulting Group. He cited the entry fee of 50 dinars for non-Arab tourists to Petra as an example. Arabs pay 1 dinar.

King Abdullah II has said kick-starting a recovery and repairing his country’s finances is the main goal.

The economy is growing at more than 3 percent a year, an enviable number in Europe. Yet it’s not enough to create jobs and unemployment is about 12 percent, according to government spokesman Mohammad Momani.

Gulf Aid

The country also is dependent on international aid, particularly from Gulf nations, leaving it vulnerable to shifting priorities in the region.

Fighting in Yemen, territory controlled by Islamic State, Syria and Egypt have overtaken Jordan, also as falling oil prices crimp spending power in the Gulf, said David Butter, Middle East analyst and associate fellow at foreign policy research group Chatham House in London.

“Jordan gets forgotten,” he said. “It’s down the list.”

Nawwaf at the Indiana Jones store a few meters from the entrance to the ancient Nabataean city in Petra said he owes more than 253,000 dinars in loans and unpaid rent because of the drop in his income. After he settles his debts, Nawwaf said he plans to move on to a new profession.

“Tourism is treacherous,” he said.

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