HEART OF THE MIDDLE EAST

Jordan 2019 | TOURISM | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr. Abed Al Razzaq Arabiyat, Managing Director of Jordan Tourism Board (JTB), on the country's major sights, tourists' demands, and the Jordan Convention Bureau.

What have been the recent main achievements for JTB?

From the first day I was appointed as the Managing Director at the Jordan Tourism Board, I questioned why Jordan does not have the numbers that we know the destination deserves based on what we have to offer. If we compare Jordan to other countries, we have many unique selling points. These USPs include the Baptism Site of Jesus Christ, the Dead Sea—the largest natural spa in the world and lowest point in earth, Petra, Wadi Rum, and 21,000 other archaeological sites. I conducted a small-scale marketing research study to analyze the behavior of tourists and theorized that the catalyst for tourism is air connectivity. My main priority became bringing in low-cost carriers (LCCs). In 2018 over 500 million passengers used LCCs to travel and a vast majority of Europeans use LCCs. Those carriers did not operate to Jordan. In my meetings with EasyJet and Ryanair, they revealed that one of the key obstacles the faced with operating into the Kingdom was the departure tax imposed at our airports. We have excellent exposure and have invested a great deal in marketing in the past 15 years and positioned Jordan on many must-see and must visit lists. However, at the end of the day, when European tourists see air tickets to Jordan cost EUR800, they will not come. The solution was to convince the Jordanian Ministry of Finance to waive the tax. A simple cost-benefit analysis for a financial model that waives this tax would result in the loss of JOD300,000 in departure tax income per year compensated by a gain of JOD20 million in sales tax, income tax, and entrance fees. After I submitted the research, the government waived the tax for LCCs. Then, I requested funding from the government to attract Russian charters. We now have nine flights per week from Russia. Then, I started negotiations with Ryanair and easyJet, and we signed 16 destinations with them, split between Amman and Aqaba. At the same time, we implemented a perception management strategy in the past two years to convince tourists that Jordan is safe. This strategy depends heavily on user-generated content, wherein we invited hundreds of social media influencers from all over the world. They came and shared their experience for one week in Jordan, again putting the Kingdom on the tourism map. That is why the numbers are picking up, thanks to air connectivity and the perception management strategy. We also started promoting a new product: the Jordan Trail. Several journalists came and wrote about Jordan's diversity, environment, and the unique and authentic experience. We started to diversify our portfolio by adopting a new approach, moving away from the traditional way of marketing. Now, we follow a demand-driven approach rather than market based.

As part of this demand-driven strategy, how did you identify Jordan's tourism offering?

We identified our product and our experience, focusing on our religious product. We have hundreds of sites mentioned in the old and new testaments, so we started creating content with 34 key sites. We have a brochure with different languages online and offline, and we invited church leaders, parish priests, and specialized tour operators to visit all the Christian and Islamic sites in Jordan. For the adventure segment, we started promoting the Jordan Trail. Our designated adventure tourism unit is participating in specialized exhibitions in adventure as well as bringing in bloggers, influencers, and magazines. In 2019, the US-based Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) will hold its annual Near East conference in Jordan for the third year in a row. It will bring in buyers to meet suppliers, and Jordan will become an adventure tourism hub in the entire MENA region. For history and culture, we have partnerships with Expedia, TripAdvisor, and co-ops subsidizing and supporting the big tour operators in their marketing packages dedicated for Jordan. Of course, there is also medical and wellness tourism. We now have a small unit and have approached all the markets by bringing the decision makers and insurance companies to come to Jordan because healthcare here is affordable and of high quality.

How does the recently launched Jordan Convention Bureau contribute to this segment, and what are other key elements are needed to develop the MICE segment?

One of our success stories was the launch of the convention bureau. The convention bureau is responsible for bidding and communicating with large associations such as ICA, and we are participating in specialized exhibitions like IBTM World and IMEX. We started promoting Jordan as a business destination for meetings, conferences, and events. We bid for 10 big conferences and won four. We have a competitive edge in that we are the only country in the world where one can arrange a gala dinner within a site like the Citadel or Petra, so this is an added value. Our Convention Bureau Ambassador Program brings in medical sector representatives who are part of international associations so they can start promoting, inviting, and bidding. Hopefully in the coming two years, we will have more conferences and conventions in Jordan. We have now become a model for others to replicate in terms of our experience in promoting and communicating our message. We are working left, right, and center to promote the country. This made us the leading sector in Jordan, witnessing growth in 2017 and 2018. Now, we will link it with job creation and investment opportunities in Jordan.

What are the next steps to link the growth in tourism with economic opportunities?

We have succeeded in our role to create demand, and now we are addressing the lack of certain services that are needed to support tourism such as transportation. We need more investment in tourism transportation as well as more hotels in Petra and Wadi Rum. We need more nightlife attractions, water parks, and special attractions such as Disneyland. The atmosphere and environment are ripe for investment in Jordan's tourism sector. Hopefully, that will help us create more jobs for Jordanians and depend less on government jobs, where almost 75% of our budget goes to salaries. My goal is to create local experiences across the trail so that one can experience homestays and local restaurants, and we need to start training people how to do business tourism. I want to make sure our guests receive the best and high-quality services.

From where are you seeing investment interest in Jordanian tourism?

There is interest from both private and public sectors. The private sector feels it needs to expand more and has started some initiatives, though the one thing I dream of is a big exhibition center in Jordan. The government started negotiations with IFEMA in Spain to install a big exhibition center here, and if we have this, Jordan will witness a transformational period in terms of economic activity and job creation. The feasibility studies and research show we have lost many potential big exhibitions because of the lack of capacity. With air connectivity, an attractive climate, and professional tourism operators, we have the right environment to attract large exhibitions in Jordan.