Despite Peace, Jordan Sees Tourist No-Show
PETRA, JORDAN — Jamil Twaissi opened the Petra Paradise Hotel to guests before the building was complete, before the air conditioners were installed, and before the hot water was turned on.
His rush to erect a 46-room hotel on the outskirts of Petra, the 2,000-year-old Nabatean city that is Jordan's most alluring archaeological treasure, seems a local pastime. The hotels scattered outside the sunbaked ruins of Petra sprang from hopes that an economic boom, including tourism, would follow a peace treaty with Israel two years ago.
"The peace agreement with Israel encouraged us," says Mr. Twaissi, wearing a Petra baseball hat on the opening day of his $750,000 hotel.
Competition is intense. Immense luxury resorts are creeping further up a hillside overlooking the mountain range that once housed the Nabateans' great trading post. Petra was to draw not only Israelis, but also masses of Holy Land visitors who previously would have had a hard time getting into Jordan. Now, with so many hotels standing empty and tour companies scrambling to fill seats, some Jordanians complain that King Hussein "oversold the peace process," as one analyst in Amman puts it.
About 20,000 visitors came to Petra in June, compared with 8,000 before the peace agreement was signed.
But even at the height of this year's tourist season, Petra did not attract enough visitors to fill more than a dozen rooms per hotel each night. Many Israelis have found they can see the famed "red rock" without staying overnight - and even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to stay when he visited Jordan recently.
Yet Mr. Netanyahu did bring several of Israel's top business executives to demonstrate interest in playing a bigger part in boosting the limp Jordanian economy with joint ventures.
With 18 percent unemployment, Jordan needs such help. After bureaucratic hold-ups, trucks just began crossing between the two nations last month. Only a few Israeli factories have opened in Jordan. And Amman wants bigger export quotas to Israel. Netanyahu, who has had a friendlier reception from King Hussein than from any other Arab leader, knows he would be smart to help boost Jordan's economy to offset Israel's new hard-line tack.
Twaissi, hungry for guests, is keeping prices at his three-star hotel as low as $20 per person for groups.
"They told us that living standards would be moving higher and that economic standards would change," he says. "There is change, but not as fast as expected, not up to people's expectations."