Ghosts replace the crowd as Covid-19 shakes the ancient Jordanian city of Petra | News from the world


VSamels laze in the shade of 2,300-year-old columns. The central stage of the amphitheater is temporarily reserved for goats. The noise of the crowd in front of the treasure – the most recognizable and best preserved feature of the ancient city of Petra – has evaporated, and only the song of the birds encroaches on the silence.

It’s the high season of what was supposed to be a record year for tourism in the Jordanian crown jewel, the Nabatean metropolis carved out of kaleidoscopic rock. But the last tourists left the kingdom of the Middle East on March 17, just before it closed its borders because of the coronavirus, and since then Petra and the surrounding cities have been deserted.

“We have just had our best year since the Arab Spring, which has really touched us,” said Jihad Kaldany, a guide who specializes in visiting Christian tourists through the country’s Old Testament sites. These visitors were generally elderly, the most demographic most exposed to the virus. “If we knew it would be better in, say, two years, we could plan. But there is no insurance. Nobody knows. “

The site in southern Jordan is one of the hotspots of an unprecedented crisis for the global tourism industry, with 120 million livelihoods threatened and endless in sight.

But the empty streets, hotel rooms and restaurants of Wadi Musa, the city that serves as the gateway to Petra, also illustrate the terrible challenge that middle- and low-income countries will face in the coming years. years. Most, like Jordan, have so far avoided the worst of the virus. According to the International Monetary Fund, they will not be spared the economic downturn, the countries that bet on tourism and hospitality being the main engines of their growth.

Surviving for long periods without rain was the test of the first inhabitants of Petra. How to survive a year without tourists is the challenge facing modern people.

“In a community like Wadi Musa, up to 80% of people depend on tourism as a source of income,” said Suleiman Farajat, chief commissioner of the Petra tourism authority. In Jordan, tourism represents around 15% of the country’s GDP and supports around 55,000 jobs.

Tourists outside the ancient treasury of Petra in 2015. Jordanian authorities are developing plans to market Petra as a safe destination in a post-Covid world.

Tourists outside Petra’s treasure in 2015. Jordanian authorities are developing plans to market Petra as a safe destination. Photography: Khalil Mazraawi / AFP via Getty Images

Last year, Petra welcomed more than a million foreigners, a milestone that fueled a construction blitz in Wadi Musa. Suleiman Hasanaat was preparing to open a new hotel in late March. “As soon as they stopped the flights, all the reservations were canceled,” he said.

The cost of global foreclosure is spreading across the city. “If you run a hotel, you buy vegetables and fruit at the markets,” says Hasanaat. “You employ people, including maintenance and taxi drivers. People with donkeys and horses. Those who run small shops that depend on walk-in tourists. Even the people in the city’s Turkish baths. In every family in Petra, there is someone affected by this. “

Umar Ayyad survives on small government grants, remittances from his brother to Europe, and selling his sheep.

Umar Ayyad survives on small government grants, remittances from his brother to Europe, and selling his sheep. Photography: Michael Safi / The Guardian

As with the hundreds of years before the site was “rediscovered” by a Swiss explorer in 1812, the Bedouin people are the only sign of life inside the town of Sandstone. “We are tired of doing nothing,” says Umar Ayyad, 36, riding a donkey in the midday look.

He says he earns around 30 dinars (£ 34) each day from selling rides to tourists, enough to support his six children. He has survived so far thanks to small government grants, his brother’s remittances to Europe and selling his 17 sheep to settle his debts. But he has to pay off his balance on a local market by the end of the month to continue buying groceries, and the money is already running out. “If the situation continues like this, it’s a problem,” he said.

The governments of developed countries are struggling to re-weave the safety nets that some have spent over the past four decades not picking. The social protection system in Jordan is relatively advanced compared to many of its neighbors, but it still has huge gaps.

Less than half of Jordanian workers are registered with the country’s social security system, which is already rationing its social benefits. Without outside help, the fund could dry up in a few months.

The rest of the country’s workforce, including tens of thousands of migrant workers, has no safety net and is fully exposed to the vagaries and predations of the market.

“That’s all we’ve done in the past two months,” Muadth gestures to the handful of bills in the cash register at a convenience store a few yards from the gates of Petra.

The Yemenis, in sandals and corduroy suit jacket, arrived in the tourist center a year ago. Even in bad months, he says, he could send around 200 dinars to his family’s home in Sanaa. “Now nothing,” he says. “My younger brother sells water and the family lives on it.”

His debts include a pastry shop owner who sponsored his work visa a year ago. The couple has quarreled and the man refuses to return his passport unless Muadth can pay for the cost of his work permit, he said. “I called him yesterday and said, listen, I’m not making any money. He said, do it. Sort something. “

Umar Ayyad:

Umar Ayyad: “We are tired of doing nothing.” Photography: Michael Safi / The Guardian

The Jordanian government is trying to cushion the impact on the tourism industry by cutting costs, deferring utility bills, and offering loans to hotel owners and other stakeholders. These measures could work in situations where the number of tourists has simply dropped, says Hasanaat, but when they are zero for months, more is needed.

“We are indebted to our government for the foreclosure,” he said. “They controlled [the virus]. We are in good hands. But as soon as Jordan becomes a crownless country, we will look around and see that most industries are doing well – but tourism is not. Petra will die without direct support or loan packages. “

To keep people coming back, tourism authorities are developing plans to market Petra as a safe destination in a post-Covid world. “We rely on outdoor tourism, which means that people are not stuck in closed areas,” says Farajat. “We are going to regulate the flow of tourists so that not many are nearby. “

A few thousand foreigners are expected to return this year, possibly followed by a few hundred thousand next year. It will take several years, at best, to return to the peaks of 2019, he said.


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