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Jordan Through Foreign Eyes

Qasr al-Bint, PetraIn a booth designed setting, posters of Petra were on display luring walkers over. Many of the passers-by didn’t know what to expect but would invite themselves to steal a look at the posters and the books that were scattered on the table. Obviously they knew the booth has something to do with Petra. That was tempting enough for any foreigner who is willing to cross miles and oceans just to visit the unique site.

Any idea of who we are”? I would ask. “Not really”. The answer I was getting most of the time, but with a look of I-want-to-know-more.

We are the “Petra National Trust”, I said, “we have existed for 18 years and we are there to preserve and protect Petra.

Tell us the story of Petra”? was the question that immediately followed, addressed to me.

That was during the Jordan’s Travel Mart event that took place at the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center at the Dead Sea on feb 10, bringing together more than 100 tour operators-buyers of tourism products and services and travel journalists from North and Latin America. The three day event, organized by the Jordan Tourism Board North America (JTBNA), aims to connect Jordan’s outbound and inbound tour operators.

The carefully qualified Jordan Travel Mart buyers met representatives of more than 50 Jordan hotels, receptive operators, and other suppliers of travel services in Jordan. Petra National Trust was invited by the Jordan Tourism Board to participate in the event as an non-government organization (NGO) among others like the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), the Jordan River Foundation, Noor al- Hussein Foundation, RACE, and the Jordan Inbound Tour Operators Association.

The event included a pre-scheduled appointment format that arranged specific meetings between American “buyers” and Jordanian “suppliers”. Each meeting lasted for 20 minutes. A good number of the tour operators PNT met had never sent any groups to Jordan and it was even their first time to the region. The political instability in the Middle East was cited as the main reason among others.

The Experience of Petra National Trust

Petra National Trust (PNT) had a schedule of 21 appointments with North and Latin American buyers. It wasn’t surprising to see the significant number of people flooding to PNT’s booth with no appointments scheduled. Ultimately, Petra is the site that draws the largest number of national and international tourists in Jordan every year.

They were all keen to know about Petra. The awesome, thrilling, breathtaking expressions that were drawn on their faces upon mentioning the Rose Red city would soon turn into expressions of admiration of the organization that is there to preserve this heritage site.

Some of the tour operator who already visited Petra have expressed with anger some concerns regarding the services in Petra. The absence of enough bathrooms was a common issue brought up by many. Another was the treatment of animals. Most of them also voiced their irritation at the unlicensed vendors and their harassment to the tourists.

Commitment

Ever since I started working in the Petra National Trust I came to realize that it is not easy to get people interested in supporting an organization that preserves a heritage site. You see people supporting projects that would build a house for someone, or would help a kid dying from cancer. But how often do you find people willing to put their money to preserve a heritage site?

At the Jordan Travel Mart, and to my great astonishment, I did meet people who showed dedication to our cause upon hearing our mission statement. One US tour operator for example, offered to donate to PNT 5 % of the total cost of each tour sent to Petra.

More commitment was shown by American journalists who were wandering around conducting interviews and taking pictures, waiting impatiently to be back home and write about their experience in Jordan which they described as “unique”. They were all eager to know about PNT, expressing their happiness to know that there is such an organization that is there to preserve Petra. They happily exchanged cards with me with a promise and a commitment to publish press releases and stories about PNT. They went on to explain how there is an international attention to Petra and everybody is interested to know more about it.

Issues to Consider

Special Tours
Some tour operators expressed their interest in special tours and wondered if PNT is considering adding this type of services to their agenda. One of the tour operators for example conducts Learning Vacations especially to Harvard students, and inquired if PNT will be conducting special tours for students in the future.
Voluntourism
There was an interest in the concept of voluntourism, which is gaining popularity in the US. Voluntourism gives the opportunity to see and experience new places and the chance to give back to the places and people you interact with during your travels. The Jordan Tourism Board North America is currently working with a number of organizations in Jordan to develop volunteer opportunities for visitors to Jordan aiming at engaging them in meaningful ways with the Jordanian people. This question was also addressed to PNT, questioning the additional of such programs for volunteers in Petra in the future.
Faith-based Travel
Faith-based travel is flourishing in the US and the local tour operators were encouraged to include that in their itineraries since this is said will attract more tourists. However, this applies more to other touristic places than Petra, like Mount Nebo, Dead Sea, Madaba, etc.
New Itineraries
One thing the Jordan Tourism Board North America stressed is how tour operators should create more attractive itineraries that would make Jordan look more tempting to the American tour operators and worth crossing miles for.The old itineraries, on the other hand, were described as traditional and not very appealing. Having bread with a local family was given as a simple activity of how this might add to the experience of any tourist.

Personal Experience

I came to appreciate PNT more and the role it has been doing all over the years. It takes a believer to appreciate the existence of such an organization which unfortunately has been and is still perceived by many as an obstacle to urban development in Petra. Petra’s recent designation amongst the New Seven Wonders has put more pressures on PNT to stand firm against all the activities that are being introduced to haphazardly increase tourism in Petra, failing to realize that such activities seriously threaten and harm this fragile site. “We visit Petra just to look at the monuments, nothing else would attract us,” as one tour operator put it, stressing the fact that Jordanians should work together to preserve the site from the impact of human contact.

I also came to appreciate Petra more. Like many Jordanians, I know that Petra is awesome and unique, but my interactions with the people at the event made me appreciate it even more. It really saddens me to see foreigners coming together with a belief that Jordanians are not taking care of Petra as they should. It is neglected in their eyes. It is neglected by its own people.

One Canadian travel editor and publisher I met over dinner explained to me that he has been traveling all around and visiting places. However, “Petra”, he said “is one of the few places that you cannot find a replacement for anywhere in the world. It’s definitely a place that is worth crossing miles and oceans for.” His statement was to stress the fact that the government has to invest more in Petra and work hard to make it a thrilling experience for any tourist from all aspects.

I see this event as a wake up call for all tour operators and even Jordanians. The three-day event helped open my eyes to an even more beautiful Jordan. Does it usually take a foreign eye to admire the beauty of one’s own country where one is born and brought up? I wonder.

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