Although the country of Jordan lacks the petroleum reserves that have enriched some of its regional neighbors, it's endowed with its fair share of tourist attractions, and then some. Last year, the ruins at Petra were named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a global Internet vote. Half the Dead Sea, the largest natural spa on earth, belongs to Jordan. Biblical sites important to pilgrims from three religions give Jordan, too, the right to market itself as holy land. And on the Gulf of Aqaba, it possesses the raw material of sun-and-sand mass tourism, with seven miles of beaches and top-notch diving and snorkeling.
But if geography-challenged Americans know one thing about Jordan, it's that it's in the Middle East, a region more often associated with trouble than with fun. A glance at the map shows that it's shoehorned in among Iraq, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
On the whole, U.S. tourists have given it scant credit for its attractions, political stability and pro-Western leanings.
As a result, Jordan for decades accepted its status as an add-on for travelers planning visits to Israel and Egypt, riding in the slipstream of countries whose marketing budgets are multiples of what Jordan can put together.
But Jordan's tourist board came to believe that this strategy was flawed. When the intifada came to Israel in 2000, Jordan saw with dismay that it had succeeded all too well in hitching its fortunes to Israel. None of the violence of that period crossed over the border into Jordan, but, lacking an independent tourism profile, its tourism sector all but collapsed.
For the past two years, Jordan has made a concerted effort to market itself as a standalone destination, investing its efforts and money into making a case to travelers and to the trade that Jordan is a worthy destination in its own right. It has courted religious markets in particular with diligence, often positioning itself as a Holy Land on par with Israel.
"We're the Holy Land of the Old Testament; they're the Holy Land of the New," said Akel Biltaji, a Jordanian senator and former tourism minister who remains very influential in the country's tourism promotional efforts.
The standalone posture was front and center at the first Jordan Tourist Mart, held at the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center in February. The meeting near the Dead Sea brought receptive operators and tourism officials together with travel agents and tour operators from North and South America for two days of presentations and sometimes-lively debate.
In interviews with Travel Weekly during the conference, tourism officials were clear about their current thinking.
"We are a troubled region," said Nayef Al Fayez, managing director of the Jordan Tourism Board. "We're proud to be in the neighborhood, but we often suffer from misconceptions, and it's not fair."
He emphasized that Jordan was on good terms with Israel and facilitated border crossings. But by promoting itself aggressively now as a standalone destination, Jordan is simply acting in its own best interest.
"The experience in 2000 [with the intifada] was not very pleasant," Al Fayez said. "We were working closely with Israel at the time, and there was an immediate effect for Jordan. The American market is very sensitive, and we lost a lot of business. We're still paying the price. Later, perhaps, we'll go back" to working more closely with Israel and Egypt.
Focus on Americans
The 177,783 Americans who visited Jordan in 2007 accounted for only 2.7% of the 6.5 million total arrivals. Although the U.S. total grew 4% last year, it was still less than half the number of Europeans, and European arrivals grew 37.7% between 2006 and 2007.
Given the momentum of visitors from Europe and the difficulties of overcoming American skittishness and perceptions about Jordan, why is the tourist board putting so much effort behind a push for more American visitors?
Maha Khatib, Jordan's minister of tourism, said the economics was simple: "Americans spend more per day [than Europeans], and the American market is bigger. Jordan is a country that's worth visiting as a standalone destination, but we do have a long way to go."
A tourism action plan covering the years 2007 through 2010 targets North and South America, with a goal of doubling all tourism revenue in that time frame. Tourism dollars stood at $2.1 billion in 2006; in 2007, the country saw a rise to $2.31 billion, an increase of better than 12%.
For the most part, trade delegates from the Americas who attended the Jordan Travel Mart were dubious about the prospects of the country as a standalone destination. At a panel co-moderated by myself and Flavio Bitelman, the publisher of Host, a travel trade publication in Brazil, a Jordanian audience member asked tour operators on the panel why Jordan didn't get as much prominence as Israel and Egypt in tour brochures.
"It's probably because EgyptAir and Israel's tourist board give a lot of marketing support," said Alison Clark, a senior product manager for Collette Vacations, which is just now putting together a program in Jordan. She recommended that money would be well spent in co-op marketing with Israel and Egypt.
Clark added that Collette was unlikely to sell Jordan as a standalone destination in the near term, though she felt it had potential to be marketed that way after Americans become more familiar with its products. (When added to Collette's portfolio, it will initially be packaged with Egypt.)
Ken Luzietti, a panelist who owns the Travel Society, a Virtuoso agency with three locations in Colorado, said he was attending the Travel Mart to learn more about religious travel to Jordan. He felt it was a particularly strong niche because the motivation to go for religious reasons made time and money considerations less relevant.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime trip for these travelers," Luzietti said. "They're stratified economically, but the weak dollar won't stop them. And if they want to see holy sites, they must come to the Middle East. Mount Nebo [where Moses is said to have seen the promised land before he died] is in Jordan. It's not in the U.S. It's not in Mexico. If it's important to see it, you have to come here."
For many of those attending the conference, the bottom line question was: Does the country have enough strong points of interest to merit a seven-day visit, the minimum that tour operators believe U.S. visitors would require if they were taking such a long flight?
The answer probably depends on one's definition of "strong points of interest."
The best known and most distinctive site in Jordan is Petra. There are better preserved and more varied and extensive ruins of the period -- Ephesus in Turkey and Leptis Magna in Libya come to mind -- but none has Petra's unique blend of overlapping civilizations and, most importantly, its dramatic presentation.