Jordan Girds for Pilgrimages in 2000

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Reed Travel Features

WASHINGTON -- Jordan is readying its biblical tourist sites to welcome a record number of visitors in 2000 to commemorate Jesus' life, according to the Jordan Tourism Board of North America here. Officials said that a marketing program, called Jordan: Land and River of Baptism 2000 A.D., is being planned to promote the occasion.

During an interview at the World Travel Market in Orlando, Fla., last fall, Akel Biltaji, the Hashemite Kingdom's tourism and antiquities minister, said, "Jordan is known as the Gate of the Holy Land. This is not an exaggeration. "Every single prophet has dwelled at some time in Jordan and crossed the Jordan River."

On the east bank of the Jordan, where John the Baptist is said to have baptized Christ, work in the area is under way by government and private interests to accommodate followers who are expected to emulate Jesus and purify their souls in the holy river. Biltaji said that some tourist development might occur there, such as the building of a spa, bathhouses and dining outlets.

Other biblical sites include the Garden of the Lord and the lowest point on earth in the Jordan Valley. It was here that the prophet Mohammed is said to have crossed into Jerusalem.

At Mount Nebo, near Madaba, Moses viewed the Holy Land before he died, and at Machaerus is the castle where John the Baptist was beheaded.

Another site being readied is ancient Gadara, now called Um Qeis, where Jesus performed the miracle of the Gadarine swine.

Petra, the most popular site in Jordan, is not primarily a Christian site. It is the former stronghold of the Nabataeans, a nomadic tribe from western Arabia that settled the area in about the sixth century B.C. Not until 2000, when Jordan's overall tourist flow is expected to increase sharply, will Petra experience serious traffic problems, Biltaji said. By then, some rerouting of the tourist flow might be attempted.

Petra, hidden in the stoney fastness of southern Jordan, is known for its tombs, public buildings and other monuments hewn into walls of rose-red rock. Pedestrians enter Petra through a long, narrow passage called the Siq. The city averages about 1,500 visitors a day, Biltaji said. The peak visitor hours are 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Biltaji encouraged agents to take advantage of the 2,200 rooms available in Petra and to schedule two- or three-night stays vs. day trips whenever possible.

Hotels in Petra include the five-star Movenpick and a number of four-star properties, which account for 1,200 rooms. The other 1,000 rooms, he said, are in three- and two-star hotels and some pension operations.

Although sites for future hotel building around Petra have been selected, he said, a decline in Western visitors last year delayed that development.

Biltaji noted that the new airport in the south at Aqaba, Jordan, is shared by Jordan and Israel. It welcomed its first charter flight last Oct. 21. El Al has scheduled some service from abroad into Aqaba, Biltaji said, and Royal Jordanian and Royal Wings offer flights from Amman (about 30 minutes' flying time).

The airport, also known as Salaam-Shalom, is a gateway for visiting Wadi Rum, a beautiful Jordanian valley where Lawrence of Arabia once rode. All formalities involved with entry to Israel for passengers using Aqaba airport are done at Israel's smaller Eilat airport, about a 10-minute drive. Israel-bound passengers take surface transportation from Aqaba airport into Eilat.

Arkia, the Israeli domestic airline, has flights to Eilat from Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv and other points.

For more information, call the Jordan Tourism Board at (202) 244-1451; e-mail [email protected]

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