Amman – With a rich religious history and a host of Islamic and Christian sites, Jordan is counting on religious tourism to attract international visitors despite the challenge of being in an unstable and troubled region.
Jordan has 35 Islamic sites and shrines and 34 Christian holy sites that it is seeking to promote through an aggressive marketing campaign.
The Jordan Tourism Board (JTB), an independent, public-private sector partnership engaged in marketing strategies to brand, position and promote tourism in Jordan, said the number of tourists from Muslim Asian countries, including Malaysia and Indonesia, has increased significantly, suggesting that Jordan is on the right path in promoting tourism.
“The number of overnight religious tourists from Indonesia and Malaysia increased by 60% and 15%, respectively, while Italian visitors increased by 43%, which indicates a healthy situation regarding this type of tourism,” JTB Managing Director Abed Al Razzaq Arabiyat said.
“We are deploying lots of efforts to attract both Muslim and Christian visitors through planning various activities in areas that have significant religious aspects. For example, this year visitors in Madaba and Fuheis will be able to enjoy Christmas-related activities such as the Christmas Parade, the same as the one held in Bethlehem.”
Arabiyat said Jordan has “a strong product and this product should be marketed globally.”
He said the JTB has established a special unit to promote Islamic and biblical sites. It has organised activities such as hosting religious leaders from Gulf countries and priests from around the world, which has contributed to the increase in the number of tourists.
“One of the challenges we face is the high airfare to Jordan compared with much lower fares to Israel, almost 90% lower,” Arabiyat said. “This is affecting the number of visitors to the Jordanian side of (Jesus’s) baptism site on the Jordan River but we are working on a strategy to cooperate with airlines to reduce their airfare to Amman.”
The World Tourism Organisation, the UN agency responsible for promoting sustainable and universally accessible tourism, said 300 million to 330 million pilgrims visit key religious sites around the world each year. Approximately 600 million religious trips are organised, 40% of which take place in Europe.
The baptism site is one of the leading Christian sites in Jordan, attracting 48,335 visitors in the first half of 2017 compared to 37,604 in the same period last year.
“There is no doubt that the visit of His Holiness Pope Francis to the baptism site as part of his 2014 pilgrimage to the Middle East contributed to the awareness and popularity of the site itself and this is shown through the increase in the numbers of visitors especially from Europe,” said the Reverend George Sharayha, a Catholic priest.
“Jordan’s baptism site ‘Bethany Beyond the Jordan’ or Al-Maghtas as it is known in Arabic, was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2015 to become the fifth site in Jordan to make it to the list after Petra, Quseir Amra, Um Al Rasas and Wadi Rum,” Sharayha added.
The positive reverberations of promoting religious tourism are not felt everywhere.
“Yes, we see tourists visiting Madaba but we don’t see any seriousness in purchasing religious-related items although our prices are reasonable. The purchasing power is low among tourists,” said Abu Hamzeh, who owns a souvenir shop in Madaba in central Jordan.
“Madaba has been a centre for pilgrimage since early Christianity. With Mount Nebo being the burial place of Moses, you expect to see many tourists visiting as part of their pilgrimage tour but, unfortunately, we are not perceiving tangible improvement in our business,” he added.
Abu Hamzeh commended efforts by Christian leaders to promote biblical sites to European pilgrims with a special focus on Jordan as a cradle for religious tourism.
“We know many people are involved in such an effort but at the end we need results, positive results because we have families to feed and rent to pay,” he said.
Arabiyat said he is positive Jordanians will soon reap the benefits of the tourism strategy, saying: “Our strategy is to make sure tourists get the best service so they can appreciate the uniqueness of Jordan’s wonders.”