Tourist numbers are scant in Jordan, making visits to its historical sights all the more memorable.
It’s called taking the million-dollar step. Before filming famous scenes for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, actor Harrison Ford walked the kilometre-long slot gorge called The Siq to the lost city of Petra in Jordan, guided by Queen Noor, wife of King Hussein. She asked Ford how much he would pay to see the most amazing sight in the world. He said a million dollars. “Then take one step to the left,” she replied, and through a narrow gap between The Siq’s 80-metre high walls, he caught a first mesmerising glimpse of Al Khazneh, a gigantic temple carved into the sheer rock face. Commonly known as The Treasury, it was created by Nabataean traders who built a city within this concealed canyon in 200BC. While The Treasury was fabled to conceal vast stashes of gold and gems in keeping with its grandeur, it is simply a tomb with a shallow room behind the gigantic facade, resplendent with towering columns, architrave and frieze. You can take the same step to the left and see this magnificent sight for the modest entry fee of 50 Jordanain Dinar (about $95) at Petra Archeological Park. Legend says Ford paid up and his money went to charity, but he hasn’t returned to Petra since his filming commitment finished a week later. In his place, a rush of visitors inspired by his movie have come to witness the same splendour – peaking at more than a million people a year. Now, however, the vast majority of travellers are spooked, afraid of civil unrest and terrorist actions in countries that flank Jordan. Where there were once thousands of visitors, now there are few, despite Jordan’s strong military presence and tourism police numbers at significant sites throughout the country. We enter The Siq at 7am (two hours before coach loads of visitors arrived from Amman and across the Israeli border) and walk with only our local guide Ahmed for company. We gaze without interruption upon the brilliantly coloured sandstone, its vivid rainbow hues exaggerated in the bright morning light. Eventually a few Bedouin lead their camels past us in the hope of earning tourist rides or posing in photographs for tips. The quietness in such a majestic location is overwhelming – and, considering how safe we felt, quite puzzling. Splendid as this was for my wife and I, it hurts Jordan deeply. Tourism comprises more than 50 percent of the national economy, yet tourism operators concede that numbers are down to only 10 percent of expected levels. Therefore, Jordan teeters in a perilous state. The country has no oil, no large mineral industry, except the extraction of potash and bromide from the Dead Sea in a joint-project with Israel. Its stark, stony expanses of desert allow only scant agriculture – certainly nowhere near enough to feed the population. Without about $2 billion received annually in foreign aid, especially from the US and EU, it is feared the economy will collapse. However, Jordan continues to be the great gathering place for Arab refugees. More than half of Jordan’s 6.5 million residents are displaced Palestinians, plus more refugees from Syria, Iran and Iraq who have almost doubled the country’s population since 1990. They squeeze into ever expanding townships on the outskirts of cities, some in tents branded with United Nations insignia. The lack of tourism dollars penetrates deeply into these communities. Othman Qandeel is a driver with more than 15 years experience in tourism. He’s clever and highly connected, but now he’s contemplating quitting the tourism industry to secure a more reliable income. “I’d like to think things will turn around and get strong again, but I can’t say when,” says Othman, “and I don’t think I can afford to wait much longer.” It’s a cruel injustice that tourists have deserted Jordan, especially as the people take great pride in offering heartfelt and generous hospitality to any foreign guest. While they have deep strata of ancient history to marvel at – in Petra, Amman, Jarash, Dead Sea resorts and the Wadi Rum desert – it is sobering that the turbulence of modern history that revolves around them is having such a pronounced impact on this nation’s future. Please note: Smart Traveller advises tourists to “exercise a high degree of caution” when visiting Jordan. More info: smartraveller.gov.au