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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 April, 2003, 00:23 GMT 01:23 UK
Jordan suffers tourist drought

By Martin Asser
BBC News Online in Jordan

It is one of the ironies of international tourism that your experience can be diminished by the presence of too many other foreigners - yet your presence is one of the very elements detracting from the experience.

Ironies aside, if you want to avoid the crowds now is definitely the time to come to Jordan.

The Treasury, Petra
Sightseers once flocked to Petra's most famous landmark, the Treasury

Take Petra - the fabled "Rose Red City" carved into the rock - which until a couple of years ago was swarming with tourists, from well-heeled pensioners disgorged from cruise liners to ragged backpackers.

"In the good times, we'd have 5,000 or even 10,000 people coming every day," says Muhammad, owner of two white donkeys who carry foot-sore tourists around Petra's many monuments.

"Now we're lucky if we get 15 or 20," he says. "There were days, during the war in Iraq, when nobody came at all."

Unable to work

Indeed the opportunity to view the sometimes unbelievable splendours of Petra virtually alone has spelt disaster for the hundreds of donkey and camel-boys, archaeological guides and trinket sellers who once made a good living from the tourist trade.

Twenty-six-year-old Muhammad now earns in a month what he used to make in a day in the "good times" - about $100 - which is hardly enough to feed and clothe his five children.

Donkey handlers, jordan
Local people are hoping that tourism will pick up soon

The Jordanian Government has been trying to alleviate the situation - which began when the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation started in September 2000.

That was when Holy Land tourists, who used to sweep through Israel and the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Egypt's Sinai peninsula, simply stopped coming.

"Fifty or so of the shebab here have been given jobs by the government, cleaning up the monuments, so they don't starve; others help with archaeological excavations, which brings in a little money," says Muhammad.

"But I can't do any of those things," he says, rotating his right arm gingerly as our donkeys stagger up a steep stone path to one of Petra's most fabulous sites, the Deir or Monastery.

"I dislocated my arm a few months ago while pulling one of the donkeys, so this is all I can do," he says, smiling and patting his faithful steed.

Hoping for peace

Along the route, we pass Bedouin women sitting by low tables on which lie jewellery and coloured stones.

They each call out his name and beg Muhammad to stop so that his customer can become their customer too.

If only there was peace, then we would be happy and the tourists would come again

After about half an hour's hard climb - though it's the donkeys that have done all the work - we reach the Deir, a truly magnificent facade carved massively into a coffee-coloured cliff face.

A nearby tomb/cave has been turned into a charming cafe, with a terrace for perhaps 100 guests to have a soft drink and gaze in awe at how the first-century Nabatean Arabs could have conceived, let alone built, such a wonder.

But of course, there is nobody to occupy the tables, and the owner, whose Brooklyn accent sits uncomfortably with his Bedouin appearance, greets you like long-lost brothers.

"Y'know, we love all people here, French, German, Japan, English and Americans, even the Israelis, but they don't come no more," says the cafe owner.

"I used to like the Israelis, they were very friendly, except the religious ones," says Muhammad, his hands describing a long, bushy beard.

"But we get upset when we see on the television Palestinian children and Iraqi children being killed and injured.

"If only there was peace, then we would be happy and the tourists would come again."

Iraq war 'will hit Mid-East growth'
11 Apr 03  |  Business
Jordan tribes' despair over Iraq
03 Apr 03  |  Middle East

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