Is it just me or is there a lot going on this summer? Amman Summer Festival, Amman Open Spaces Festival, the Jordan Festival, the International Fun Festival, the Franco Arab Film Festival, God-knows-what-festival. There seems to be so many of these festivals all running at the same time this year that I am really confused. The streets of Amman seem littered with posters and billboards advertising these events. You’ve all probably seen those colorful windfans that are spinning around the lamp-posts of major roads promoting the Amman Summer Festival. I wonder if they could generate enough electricity to light those lamp-posts…?
But I digress.
First, giving credit when due, I have to say that the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB) has been doing a pretty decent job lately. The new posters, especially those at the airport, feature more interesting snapshots of Jordan, while the commercials running on high-profile satellite channels like CNN International and MBC2 are an improvement over past efforts. I wonder how much they cost to make and air?
Their website is more interesting as is their regularly updated Youtube channel and Twitter channel, both of which have been helpful. Heck, they even respond when you tweet them. Hopefully they’ll get on Ikbis and Watwet soon but that’s probably as good as e-government is going to get in Jordan, and compared to the past this is progress. I hope they can manage to promote those social media channels because they can be very helpful ways to communicate and promote the country to the outside world. That online interaction is important these days. You can’t just be a poster and a commercial, you’ve got to spread the word and open a channel of communication. So kudos to the JTB on their efforts to do so.
As for the Jordan Festival. Well, I’ve generally figured out what the programme is from zooming past the middle-of-the-road billboards at 60 km/h. From what I could decipher from the blurs, I’m almost positive that the Rolling Stones will be attending, but don’t quote me. I’d tell you to check their website but, well, yeah…
All that being said this only brings me to the larger point: what happens once you spend a lot of money and energy in convincing people to come here?
A cursory glance at many of our tourist sites seems to indicate that not much has improved since Petra was named a new seven world wonder exactly two years ago to this date. Sure, we made an appearance in the disastrous Hollywood summer flick, Transformers 2, but besides the fact that movie-goers are left with the impression that Petra is in a remote and hidden Egyptian desert, how prepared are these places, such as Petra, when it comes to accepting tourists and offering a competitive tourist experience?
Tourism does, on observation, seem to be down this summer. Only a few summers ago, our streets used to be noticeably filled with foreign, typically Gulf-based, license plates. No longer is that the case. Jordanian plates are all I see. Some of the local tourist operators I know say that last summer they used to send out several buses every week filled with tourists to places like Wadi Rum, Aqaba and Petra. This summer they are struggling to barely fill two buses a week, and the majority of travelers are locals (who can still barely afford it). High prices maybe one thing but these operators also blame the fear of swine flu as another factor, but I’m not sure how relevant of a factor it’s been.
There is no doubt that the war on Iraq did create a bump in tourism for Jordan, although I find myself wondering if the country failed to capitalize on the opportunities that have arisen since. Be it the world wonder competition or even the recent visit by the Pope, it seems we are a country that has received a great deal of opportunities but consistently struggles to capitalize on them and sustain their growth. What we’re left with are a series of opportunities that wash over the country like a wave, and the country is like a small boat with no control over which direction the waves take it. Without that control we can simply discard any notions of sustainable growth in this sector.
While institutions such as the Jordan Tourism Board have done a pretty decent job at marketing the country abroad, the same amount of effort doesn’t seem to have been applied here at home when it comes to ensuring a solid infrastructure for tourism. Yes, some attention is being paid to infrastructure, I admit, but in my honest opinion, I believe the service sector is an integral part of infrastructure in the tourism world. The service sector in Jordan that is designed to complement, sustain and grow tourism is at best, sub-par, and that’s where a lot of the focus needs to be. Tourism often works best when foreigners go home and tell their friends about their experiences, and the same goes for domestic tourism. As a Jordanian, I am most encouraged to travel to destinations within our borders when I’ve heard of a pleasant experience or reduced prices. In fact, I tend to consider the positive feedback before I think of the prices; otherwise it’s not even worth going. And yes, prices are quite high. For the average Jordanian, they are unbelievably high (check out hotel rates in Aqaba or the Dead Sea). Experience matter, whether it is a foreigner or a citizen (read this op-ed by Nermeen Murad).
The service sector in this country needs to realize that in order for them to survive and grow, the concentration needs to be on ensuring that experience is a positive one. Moreover, government institutions need to work a lot closer with service-providers to make sure the user-experience complements what they’re trying to promote.