Jordan’s Tourism Sector in the Wake of COVID-19: Where Do We Go From Here?

by Nizar Al Adarbeh, Starling Carter, Hussein Khirfan, and Shatha Abu Aballi, USAID SCHEP*

A local craftsman teaches a visitor how to create bottled sand art as part of an interactive tourism experience with Aqabawi in Aqaba.

 

Steady Growth and Increasing Opportunities: The Tourism Sector in Jordan

In recent years, Jordan’s tourism industry has grown steadily to become one of the most important sectors for the country’s employment and GDP. Jordan’s World Heritage Sites, including Petra and Wadi Rum, have topped travel lists and helped to make Jordan an increasingly popular destination for travelers from all over the world. The establishment of new, affordable routes between Jordan and Europe on low-cost airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet has further enhanced this growth. This, in turn, has led to an increasing number of tour operators and agencies, hotels, lodges, tourist restaurants, transportation services, and other companies and organizations focusing on different facets of tourism throughout the country.

In 2019, Jordan’s tourism sector witnessed one of its best years yet, with Petra alone reaching 1 million visitors in November1 and Jordan overall receiving more than 5.3 million same-day and overnight visitors.2 Revenue from tourism receipts and expenditures in 2019 exceeded 5.1 billion JOD (equivalent to approximately 7.25 billion USD), compared to 4.7 billion JOD in 2018.3 According to figures provided by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MOTA), numbers from the beginning of 2020 were also promising, with Jordan welcoming 479,000 foreign visitors by the end of January, up by over 11% compared to the same period in 2019. Many expected 2020 to be another record-breaking year for Jordan’s tourism industry.

As a result of this increasing activity and revenue, while Jordan’s economy is growing slowly overall, tourism is a critical and burgeoning sector, contributing 19.2% of the country’s GDP in 2018.4 According to data from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, in 2019 the tourism industry employed 53,488 people, 85% of whom were Jordanian.5 This is especially important in a country such as Jordan, where the estimated unemployment rate is 15%6 and the GDP per capita is under $5,000 (compared to the regional average of $8,000).7 The contribution of the thriving tourism industry is key to the growth of the country’s economy overall and to an increase in workforce participation, especially in the rural areas where many tourist destinations are located.

A local man dressed in the garb of the 20th century Jordanian Desert Force stands in front of Petra’s famous Treasury.

COVID-19 Hits Jordan: Immediate Impact on Tourism Sector

The global COVID-19 pandemic and resulting international and local restrictions on travel, gatherings, and economic activity had an immediate and severe effect on Jordan’s tourism sector. In mid-March, the Jordanian government announced that, as a result of the rapid spread of the coronavirus throughout the world, Jordan’s international borders and the airports would be closed to all but essential travel indefinitely. Thus began three months of strict curfews, the shuttering of businesses, schools, offices, and shops, and a complete halt to tourism activities. Numerous industries felt the impact of these restrictions, and small businesses that were unable to quickly arrange for delivery services of their goods faced stiff competition from larger companies that already had established methods for remote shopping and distribution.

The tourism sector was one industry that saw a near-complete cessation of activities, as travel between governorates was restricted for several weeks and tourist sites and businesses were closed for public safety. Out of more than 53,000 tourism jobs in the country, how many have been lost or how many employees have been furloughed without pay is unknown. Many daily laborers, who work in and around Jordan’s archaeological sites but are not included in official employment numbers for the tourism sector, have also been affected.

No official numbers have been published regarding lost revenue during this period, but, according to sources in the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, “Jordan Pass” sales for March 2020 totaled 360,000 JOD, of which 287,000 JOD was refunded because of cancellation requests by tourists. Based on data from the same period in 2019, we can estimate that over 1.2 billion JOD in tourism-related receipts and expenditures have been lost in the second quarter (April–June) alone,8 representing around 2.5% of Jordan‘s overall GDP for 2018. Other industries with connections to tourism, such as the agricultural sector, which provides produce for tourist hotels and restaurants, have also suffered from the cessation of activities. With no date set for the reopening of the country’s airports or borders for international tourism-based travel as of late June 2020, that number continues to grow by the day.

Familiarization trip to Umm el Jimal with Hand by Hand Heritage, a community-based MSE, as part of SCHEP’s support for tourism in Jordan

USAID SCHEP and the Journey Toward Sustainable, Community-Based Tourism

The USAID Sustainable Cultural Heritage Through Engaging Local Communities Project (SCHEP), implemented by the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR), has been supporting the development of Jordan’s cultural heritage and tourism sectors for over five years. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the project continues to work with stakeholders at all levels, from local communities to government ministries, to get through this challenging period and prepare for what comes next.

From 2014 until 2018, SCHEP focused on developing nine archaeological sites that are often left off the touristic map of Jordan. The project supported significant conservation and restoration projects at these sites, including the installation or renovation of trails for visitors, explanatory signs, and other interpretive materials. SCHEP also supported the establishment of four micro- to small-scale enterprises (MSEs) run by local community members in four different sites across Jordan. Each company specializes in enriching the visitor experience at their affiliated site by linking the cultural heritage of the area to interactive tourist experiences. By activating these companies and supporting them with grants, training opportunities, product development, and marketing assistance, SCHEP aims to support the economic stability of these local communities, which are located in rural and under-served areas.

SCHEP-supported MSEs:

  1. Jordan Southern Ghawr Company – Ghawr as Safi, Al Karak (Facebook, Instagram, Detailed Tourism Booklet; Video: Agritourism Experience at Safi Kitchen)
  2. Hand by Hand Company – Umm al Jimal, Mafraq (Website, Facebook, Instagram)
  3. Busayra Cultural Heritage Foundation – Busayra, Tafileh (Facebook, Instagram)
  4. Aqabawi – Aqaba (Website, Facebook, Instagram, Aqabawi Success Story Video; Video: Aqabawi Community-Based Cultural Experiences)

Until today, SCHEP continues to support its affiliated MSEs with both financial and technical assistance and to work with local and international bodies to promote tourism in Jordan. The SCHEP team works with organizations such as the Jordan Inbound Tour Operators Association (JITOA) and the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB) to introduce tour operators to these lesser-known sites and produce materials that introduce curious visitors to them. The project has also offered training and workshops on site promotion, offering local stakeholders the knowledge and skills they need to turn their local sites into national and international destinations.

Abdeljawad Osheibat of the Jordan Southern Ghawr Company leads visitors on an agritourism experience in Ghawr as Safi.

Taking Action: USAID SCHEP’s Response to the Crisis

As a response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, SCHEP focused its efforts during and after the lockdown period on how to support its affiliated MSEs, which suffered significant cancellations due to the restrictions on internal and external travel. SCHEP worked with each company to determine how the project can support them during this year, as they and the rest of Jordan’s tourism sector are likely to suffer major economic ramifications from the halt to local and international tourism. The project has also continued its efforts to enhance the MSEs’ sustainability and self-reliance through additional technical and financial support, focusing on upgrading experiential tourism activities, product development, marketing, branding and positioning, and capacity-building. SCHEP is working with the MSEs to ensure that all safety and hygiene standards are met once tourism restarts in Jordan, to ensure the health of both visitors and local communities.

“Safi Kitchen was affected significantly by the Coronavirus crisis, as the percentage of visitors decreased by around 99 percent. As for what SCHEP offered during the crisis, we have worked together to lay down plans for developing the company and taking advantage of the curfew to work on renovations to the Safi Kitchen building. They have also advised the Jordan Southern Ghawr Company on how to develop alternative marketing strategies for our products.”

—Abdeljawad Osheibat, Director, Jordan Southern Ghawr Company

Seeking to make the most of the curfew and resulting lull in tourism activities, SCHEP worked in cooperation with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council to launch the “Sustainable Tourism Training Program,” which was offered online from May 31 to June 12, 2020. The training included 25 participants from the tourism sector, including ACOR, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), JITOA, Jordan Society of Tourism and Travel Agents (JSTA), and MSEs (Aqabawi, Jordan Southern Ghawr Company, and Via Vii), as well as tour operators and tour guides. Out of the 25 participants, 20 received scholarships from SCHEP to take part in the training, with the goal of boosting the sustainability of Jordan’s tourism sector. The training covered a variety of topics, including Cultural Heritage Preservation and Promotion, Resource Management and Environmental Conservation, and Protecting Heritage; Effective Sustainable Tourism Management and Socioeconomic Impacts and Local Benefits; and Promoting Sense of Place.

SCHEP also worked with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the JTB to include selected MSE experiences in their “Urdonna Jannah” (“Jordan is Paradise”) program, which launched on June 20, 2020. This program was designed in 2019 to promote internal tourism to cultural and natural sites by offering tourist programs throughout the Kingdom at discounts of up to 40% for Jordanians and residents. This program was restarted soon after the major travel restrictions were lifted in June 2020 as a way to encourage a gradual return to tourism activities, as well as to provide an outlet for families who wanted to get out and explore their country after several months of sheltering in place.

“Keeping the business running in the last three months was very challenging for us; however, we used the free time during the lockdown to invest in our staff’s knowledge by attending some online business development courses. The biggest one was the Sustainable Tourism Training Program offered by GSTC and USAID SCHEP, who invested in our future business as always. We are looking forward to developing our cultural experiences more in the near future as an official part of the national domestic tourism program ‘Urdonna Jannah.’”

—Mustafa Al Ajlouni, Founder, Aqabawi Foundation

Thinking Ahead: Preparing for the Post-COVID Tourism Reality

In mid-June, the Jordanian government announced a plan to provide immediate assistance to the country’s tourism sector in light of the COVID-19 crisis.9 The fundamentals include “Motivating and enabling domestic tourism by reducing some taxes; Expanding protection and support programs for workers in the sector; Supporting domestic tourism programs; and Supporting soft loans.” The MOTA lists the following measures as a plan to mitigate the economic impact of the virus:

  • Contractual obligations of employer to employee during lockdown period
  • Lockdown period not to be deducted from length of employment contract
  • No employees to be made redundant; employers obliged to pay at least 50% of salary
  • Activation of Social Security unemployment fund where employer ceases operations (with approval from government)
  • 500 million JOD of soft loans to enable SME employers to pay their staff
  • Deferments of Social Security payments for up to 24 months to help employers pay salaries

In addition, license renewal fees and penalties will be waived for 2020, as will be fees for the rental of heritage sites. 8 million JOD is earmarked for the further development of heritage sites.

While these measures represent a significant and concerted effort to support employees and businesses, whether or not they will be able to save an industry in crisis and preserve 53,000 at-risk jobs remains to be seen. In the meantime, governmental and non-governmental stakeholders are collaborating to determine next steps and best practices for the eventual reopening. In May, USAID SCHEP was pleased to participate in a meeting with representatives from the Ministry of Tourism, USAID, and other projects and donor agencies to coordinate activities, avoid duplication of efforts, and identify gaps in the response to the coronavirus’ impact on the tourism sector. Projects and organizations are working together to come up with recovery plans and policies to guide the reopening of the country and its famous heritage sites to international visitors. These policies will offer guidance on the number of people each site can safely host at one time, the hygiene and safety measures to be put in place to protect visitors and local employees and communities, and more.

While the road ahead promises to be a bumpy one, USAID SCHEP is proud to be part of the heritage and tourism communities in Jordan. The project is dedicated to supporting collective efforts to buoy this important sector and the tens of thousands of Jordanians who depend on it through a community-first and pro-sustainability approach. SCHEP is confident that together we can pull through this crisis and come out on the other side stronger than ever.

We are pleased to share that, as we prepared to publish this article, the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB)10 shared the great news that the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has recognized Jordan as a safe destination, giving the country a “Safe Travels” stamp. This certification validates the stringent hygiene and safety protocols that the country has put in place as it prepares to begin welcoming international tourists again soon. The “Safe Travels” stamp is a global initiative that gives travelers the opportunity to identify destinations that have implemented the highest standards of safety in line with international protocols and best practices designed to safeguard travelers amid the unprecedented pandemic.

 

References

1 Roya News. 2019. “Petra Celebrates 1 Million Tourist within a Year.” Roya News, 21 November 2019. https://en.royanews.tv/news/19272/Petra-celebrates-1-million-tourist-within-a-year, accessed 29 June 2020.

2 Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. 2020. Tourism Statistical 2019. Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Statistics. https://www.mota.gov.jo/Contents/stat2019.aspx, accessed 29 June 2020.

3 Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities 2020.

4 Knoema. 2019. “Jordan Contribution of Travel and Tourism to GDP (% of GDP), 1995–2018.” World Data Atlas. https://knoema.com/atlas/Jordan/topics/Tourism/Travel-and-Tourism-Total-Contribution-to-GDP/Contribution-of-travel-and-tourism-to-GDP-percent-of-GDP, accessed 29 June 2020.

5 Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities 2020.

6 Data retrieved 29 June 2020 from The World Bank, “World Development Indicators: Jordan,” World Development Indicators, https://databank.worldbank.org/reports.aspx?source=2#.

7 The World Bank. N.d. “GDP Per Capita (Current US$)—Middle East & North Africa.” The World Bank, Data. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?locations=ZQ, accessed 29 June 2020.

8 Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities 2020.

9 Prime Ministry of Jordan رئاسة الوزراء – الأردن. Facebook post, 15 June 2020, 1130 GMT. https://www.facebook.com/PMOJO/photos/pcb.3487792791248554/3487790524582114, accessed 29 June 2020.

10 Visit Jordan. 2020. Facebook post, 5 July 2020, 1339 GMT. https://www.facebook.com/VisitJordan/photos/a.765686620132665/3483838808317419/, accessed 8 July 2020.

*This blog article is not official U.S. Government information and does not necessarily represent the views or positions of the U.S. Agency for International Development or the U.S. Government.

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