I've noticed (and complained) that although travel is the second-largest industry in the world, it seems not to get the respect it deserves in serious global forums. So I was surprised when I was asked to moderate a plenary session at the World Economic Forum's regional summit on the Middle East and North Africa last week along the eastern shore of the Dead Sea.
The second half of that opening session was dedicated to tourism in the host country, Jordan, with an eye to drawing investment to enterprises aligned with responsible best practices.
Seated in the front row were United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres, a king, a queen, a crown prince, two prime ministers and four presidents. And they all appeared to be listening.
From left: President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, President Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti, Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah of Jordan, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Queen Rania of Jordan and Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), listen to presentations about tourism in Jordan at a regional WEF conference on the Middle East and Africa last week. Photo Credit: World Economic Forum
While I don't believe I've ever before started a sentence "Your majesties, your royal highnesses, excellencies ..." or had a princess on a panel, I was pleased that if I was going to be presenting tourism best practices to people in a position to support them, Jordan was the source of my examples.
Jordan punches well above its weight as a tourism promoter, all the more impressive because, at 14% contribution to the country's gross domestic product, it ranks only fourth among revenue sources; as a private-sector employer, it ranks sixth.
That might change. It's said that creativity must close the gap between resources and need, and when it comes to creative tourism promotions, I'd put Jordan among the top three in the world.
Secretary-general Guterres, speaking on a different topic, uttered the forum's most memorable line: "Don't come with a speech. Come with a plan."
United Nations Secretary-General Guterres at the WEF conference: “Don’t come with a speech. Come with a plan.” Photo Credit: World Economic Forum
Jordan has come with a plan, one that neatly dovetails with the important societal trends that came up repeatedly during the two-day conference: Women empowerment (women's economic participation in Jordanian tourism increased 66% over the past decade); job creation (the country's National Tourism Strategy forecasts the need for an additional 20,000 professionals in the next two years); and ensuring that local people, not just multinational corporations, benefit from globalization (the country's tourist board last year launched "The Meaningful Map of Jordan," directing tourists to 12 small social enterprises).
My panel focused on five areas of tourism development: adventure, represented by Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) CEO Shannon Stowell; religious tourism; well-being tourism; development of the Wadi Musa area; and cinema-inspired tourism. Panelists discussed ways in which these sectors provide local jobs, are environmentally sensitive and are responsive to community needs.
From left: Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief of Travel Weekly discusses tourism best practices in Jordan with Princess Rym Ali, a commissioner on Jordan’s Royal Film Commission; Shannon Stowell, CEO, the Adventure Travel Trade Association; Rustom Mkhjian, Acting Director-General, Baptism Site Commission; Anni Hood, CEO, Well Intelligence; and Nadim Muasher, chairman, Arab International Hotels Co. Photo Credit: World Economic Forum
I had opened the session discussing how travelers today seek impact, not only by looking for transformative experiences but also by having their travels contribute positively to the lives of local residents. I listed several ways that Jordan is in sync with this trend.
"It checks all the boxes," I said.
And on this trip to Jordan, I ticked an unchecked box of my own. Last year, I had been to Jordan with the industry nonprofit Tourism Cares for the launch of the Meaningful Map initiative. I had visited some of the sites on the map but missed one that several people said was a must-see: the Iraq al-Amir Women's Association.
Ceramics for sale at Iraq al-Amir Women’s Association. The women in the back are creating ceramic leaves, to be glazed and painted. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
This social enterprise provides employment to women who design, create and sell paper products, ceramics and textiles as well as run a small restaurant (and, since the map was launched, also maintain two Airbnb guestrooms).
Last year, Travel Corp. CEO Brett Tollman was so impressed with it that, on the spot, he pledged $30,000 through the company's TreadRight Foundation for the cooperative to set up a showroom for their wares.
Yusra al Hussami Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
Its location is the very definition of "off the beaten path." Even with the help of Google Maps, it was difficult to find. It was my good luck that its manager, Yusra al Hussami, was present, since she's the only one on the premises who speaks English.
Al Hussami told me that the Meaningful Map project had increased business, particularly among tour operators. (After his visit, Tollman had added it to itineraries of portfolio companies Trafalgar and Insight.)
Lunch is served at Iraq al-Amir Women’s Association. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
As I interviewed al Hussami, she was buoyant and friendly, but she really lit up when I told her I knew Tollman. Similarly, the woman running the kitchen had seemed a bit put out when I asked if she could prepare lunch for two (I had arranged to meet ATTA's Stowell there), but when al Hussami told her I was an acquaintance of Tollman's, she became all smiles.
The new showroom nears completion with new fixtures, walls and ceiling. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
"When will the showroom open?" I asked.
"In a month, inshallah [God willing]," al Hussami replied. She showed me its new wooden ceiling, recessed lighting, ceiling fan, windows and walls. She said some old roof tiles had been replaced.
In just two days in Jordan, I'd encountered tourism in theory and in practice; its economics taken seriously, its applications giving hope. It felt as if, before my eyes, the industry was entering a new, more meaningful phase. Inshallah.