The Jordanian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Makram Al-Qaisi, is well aware that tourism is Jordan's oil, and that it is a cornerstone of his country's economy. He talks with passion about the tourist and archaeological sites spread throughout Jordan, detailing the advantages of each one of them.
In the year of the strong return of world tourism, Al-Qaisi seems satisfied with the Kingdom's performance, although he is looking forward to higher numbers yet. In his opinion, 2023 is the year of tourism par excellence in Jordan. With the expansion of the tourism map in the region, he does not seem concerned about the status of his country, and expresses confidence in competitive advantages that will allow the Kingdom to maintain its position, although he is looking forward to regional cooperation in tourism.
"An-Nahar Al-Arabi" met Al-Qaisi in his office in Amman, during a tour organized by the Jordan Tourism Board, and listened to him about his vision of religious tourism and the details of the plan to develop the site of the Baptism of Christ, and Jordan's aspirations for this site, stressing strict directives from King Abdullah II not to change its features, and to preserve It is an essential landmark for Christian pilgrimage. Here is the text of the hadeeth:
+ We see a tourism boom around the world this summer, and some tourist areas have reached their maximum capacity. Where is Jordan from this strong return to tourism?
The World Tourism Organization set 2019 as the base year for measuring tourism flow indicators, in both parts, tourism income and the number of visitors. As for Jordan, 2019 was one of the best years in terms of numbers. The tourism income was high and the flow of visitors was high. And after the year 2020, the Corona pandemic struck the whole world, 2021 was the year of recovery, and 2022 was excellent, and it can be said that we have reached pre-Corona numbers.
There is no doubt that the year 2023 is the year of tourism par excellence in Jordan. We passed the 2019 and 2022 numbers. In some well-known areas, the number increased by 80%, and in others that were not known, although they were no less important, the number of visitors sometimes exceeded 1,000%.
+Tourism is a cornerstone of the Jordanian economy. Can we hear from you with names and numbers about the importance of this sector for Jordan?
The tourism sector constitutes about 56 thousand direct jobs, and it is one of the sectors that employ the most Jordanians (85%), and the percentage of females increased to 20 percent from zero a few years ago.
Our main locations are what we call the Golden Triangle, ie Aqaba, Petra and Ram.
The most visited site in Jordan is Petra, and the number of visitors usually reaches one million, and the number is expected to increase this year. There are currently 3,400 hotel rooms available in the region, and we need a thousand five-star hotel rooms to cover the requests. In Ram, reservations in some camps are sometimes complete for two months.
In Jordan, other sites are no less important than Petra, such as Umm al-Jimal in northeastern Jordan. We submitted its file to UNESCO to consider including it on the World Heritage List. Umm al-Rasas is also no less important than Umm al-Jimal, and there are Byzantine churches, half of which were built on the days of the Byzantine Empire. When the Abbasids and the Umayyads came, they not only preserved the cultural and cultural heritage, but also increased it.
It is important to point out that Jordan is considered one of the countries that has preserved its heritage and antiquities most and adhered to its identity. Unlike some countries that have an Islamic history and any reference to that era in defining its antiquities, Oman, for example, insists on naming it the "Roman Amphitheater", preserving the legacy of that era.
+ The Hashemite Kingdom has always been keen to promote religious tourism and present itself as a major destination for Christian pilgrimage. What is the importance of religious tourism to Jordan, and what messages is the Kingdom keen to send by focusing on this tourism?
- Jordan includes five sites recognized by the Vatican as sites of Christian pilgrimage, which are the Baptism, Mount Nebo, Maralias, the Church of Our Lady, and Makawer, where John the Baptist was beheaded, and we are working to re-explore the site to restore it.
The Baptism was included on the World Heritage List in 2015. My share as a Jordanian in the Jordanian site was one percent of the population, and when it was added to the World Heritage List, my share as a citizen became one in seven billion, but my responsibility as Minister of Tourism and Antiquities to preserve this heritage is one hundred percent.
The Baptism is currently one of the most important Christian pilgrimage sites in the world. If the Church of the Nativity is the birthplace of Christ and the Church of the Resurrection the place of his resurrection, then the baptism is the place where he was baptized and in his name Christianity spread around the world.
Christians may classify the Baptism as the third site in terms of importance to Christians, but I think it is the most important being the cradle of the birth of Christianity.
This site is located geographically in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a Muslim-majority country that is ruled by a Hashemite King and direct grandson of the Prophet of Islam. Thus this Muslim-majority country is ruled by a Muslim king, the grandson of the Prophet, who maintains, protects and administers this Christian site.
+ What is the main goal of developing the baptism site and where did the plan come from? Is it possible to change the parameters of the sacred site?
Every country seeks to increase the number of visitors to its historical sites. The number of visitors to this place is about 200 thousand, and our ambition is to increase it in 2023, but the royal approach is clear and strict not to compromise the number of visitors on the authenticity of the site. Perhaps if this site was in another country, they would have set up investment projects, restaurants and entertainment venues, but such a matter is rejected here based on royal directives.
The Jordanian monarch ordered the formation of a royal commission to manage this site, and appointed his cousin, who is his advisor for religious affairs, as head of this committee in order to preserve this site.
I often ask why, for example, five million people visit Lourdes, and only 250 thousand visit the Baptism? What I care about is that a Christian or a Muslim comes and visits the site and walks in the footsteps of Christ and walks in the same place where he lived and was baptized and in the same cave in which John the Baptist lived and sees them as they were 2000 years ago.
This site falls within my responsibility as a state and the responsibility of the custodian of Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, and the protector of the site of the Baptism of Christ.
The development will take place in the area adjacent to the site listed on the World Heritage List. The site will not be accessed under any circumstances. There is a complete development plan that may include museums, hotels and oriental artifacts, to enrich the tourist's visit to the site.
+ From time to time, the controversy is renewed regarding the real location of the site of the baptism of Christ between the eastern and western banks of the Jordan River....
Four popes visited Jordan, and their visits confirm the importance of this site, and that it is the place of the baptism of Christ, starting with Pope Paul VI in 1964, and he was the first pontiff to leave Rome since 1812.
It is settled in terms of archaeology, in terms of documents, and in terms of the Vatican.
+ The water level of the river has decreased a lot. Are the reasons only climatic factors?
- All rivers are declining. Look at the Euphrates and Tigris. There are several reasons for this phenomenon, including climate change and the years of use of this water, and of course there is the Israeli occupation that diverts some of the sewage that is supposed to flow in this day to other places.
+ In light of the tourism boom around the world and the joining of several countries in the region to the tourism map, to what extent will Jordan be able to maintain its position?
Competition in all fields is required, but it must be on clear grounds. In Jordan, there is competition between Karak and Madaba, and between Wadi Rum, Petra and Mount Nebo.
There may be regional cooperation that will lead in the future to a tourism package whereby the tourist coming to a distant country will visit Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and the Gulf states - or some of them - in one trip.
Jordan is able to compete because it enjoys several advantages, including the arms in the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities represented by the Tourism Promotion Authority, which was established in 1998. Jordan may not have the capabilities of other countries to pump financial resources into promotion, but building cumulative expertise takes time.
The other arm is the Public Antiquities Authority, the oldest of the official government departments. It was established before the founding of the Kingdom, and two years after the Emirate (Emirate of Transjordan).
Jordan realized early on the importance of tourism because we do not have the resources of the Gulf. And the Hashemite leadership in Jordan knows very well that without natural resources you have to have an alternative, and the obvious alternative for the leadership was to focus on human resources. So we focused on medicine, engineering, education, hospitalization and capacity building in relation to our impacts.
Cumulative experience is present. The Department of Public Antiquities qualifies existing teams to restore or rebuild some sites without foreign assistance. This experience is decades of accumulation.
Another feature of Jordan lies in its unparalleled weather in the world. Add to all this the various elements of civilization such as language and music that reshape the Jordanian cultural, musical and touristic conscience through the Ministry of Tourism.
And do not forget the Jordanian cuisine, which forms the culture of society. There is a list issued every year that identifies the 50 best restaurants in the Middle East and North Africa, of which 5 Jordanian restaurants succeeded. The difference between us and others is that these restaurants are purely Jordanian and compete with the most luxurious restaurants. And the Jordanian heritage is not only tangible. Jordan is the only country that records its traditional dish (Mansaf) on the UNESCO lists of intangible heritage.
+ During your tenure as Jordan's permanent representative to UNESCO, what were the most prominent projects that you worked on?
- My work at UNESCO gave me a passion for the subject of antiquities, and we also worked on political costs, foremost of which was Jerusalem and the preservation of its identity based on the King’s guardianship over Islamic and Christian sanctities.
+ Finally, how do you evaluate Arab tourism compared to international tourism?
Arab tourism without ambition. In Jordan, we have reached advanced stages because tourism is our oil. We invested in the human element and in training. We may have a problem with domestic tourist transport, and there are legislations to develop it. We conduct training to increase the number of trainees, but not always at the expense of quality.