BEIT FADHIM, Jordan — Looking for spring? One other way to open your eyes: paddle through the Dead Sea in the company of camels and a cross-dressing marmot. There is perhaps no better conveyance to the most ancient part of the Middle East than on a visit to the Amman tourist center in Jordan. At its southern tip, it looks out over the spectacular Dead Sea, which under is 1,640 feet deep — the lowest point on Earth.
Until recently, Jordan provided a culturally-rich vacation for Americans and Europeans, and its self-assured exterior now threatens to squelch this booming sector. Years of bloody fighting in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are discouraging tourists from the pastel-painted clubs and elegant squares of Amman. Millions of refugees have flooded into Jordan and the craggy Mediterranean coastline. A series of extremist attacks has greatly undermined the region’s security; the State Department has warned Americans against travel to Jordan, Syria and Libya. The chilling blowback has been considerable. The last two months were the worst for new hotel bookings in three years.
On a sunny July morning, I tried to push a kayak into the narrow desert of central Jordan, near the Dead Sea. When I reached the water’s edge, my rubber-tipped canoe slipped from the shifting sand and was strewn across the dry wash of sand dunes. Coming out of the river, my paddle got tangled in the next horizon. The cruise boat guide had just offered a short safety lesson: “Be careful where you paddle, what you wear, and when you swim.” He held up the gun he had spray-painted green. But I grew impatient and headed out into the deeper, more sandy section of the Bedouin desert. “It’s never dangerous to swim,” I remember saying with a smile. “It’s dangerous not to swim.”
The guide with the green gun, who sped off and disappeared in a pocket of desert, laughed. “You’re crazy,” he said.
Jordan is not suffering from the Arab Spring: domestic upheavals have largely been quelled and tourism has been stable. But the low oil prices and declining investment that have affected other countries in the region have put the brakes on luxury travel in Jordan. Recency of guesthouse fires and terrorist attacks make Jordan a target for robbers, which also tarnishes the country’s reputation. (Jordanians joke that Americans don’t visit Jordan’s attractions very often, only if they die or find a snake.) “We had a ton of people stopping by for a tour, but now they’re not coming,” said Jan Chasan, sales director at the Splendid Palms Hotel, Jordan’s largest luxury hotel.
The Sharm El Sheikh resort in Egypt, another popular tourist destination, has seen an almost complete decline in guests over the past few years. That is an example of a lost market, but it also shows the plight of a key Arab visitor. Recency of tragedies can be a real deterrent to tourists. The most recent attack took place just two months ago when a bomb exploded at the Mamounia hotel in Amman, injuring 18. Of the 700,000 North African tourists who visit Jordan annually, almost half visit Sharm El Sheikh, according to the Jordanian Tourism Development Company. The resort was closed after the blast and is supposed to reopen with stronger security in October.
In the meantime, Jordan’s new government believes that the booming real estate sector could lead to a recovery of tourism. Tourists may start to visit now that the major monuments and historical sites are closed to commercial and military activities. The government has already licensed 10 new tourist agencies. Jordan’s Amman first hotel group, Driftwood, is building a seaside hotel overlooking the Dead Sea. The government has been slowly embracing private tourism development, from assisted eating to branded tours.
But those travelers of old are gone. I spent my last full day in Jordan in mid-July, wandering Amman’s Old City, absorbing the surroundings. Two old men welcomed me into the remains of a Christian home where King Abd el-Aziz ibn Saud had been buried after the 16th century war with his Iraq neighbor. From the guesthouse of the grave site, we headed to the famous Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. For several days, we exchanged stories of heroism. When I asked the old man, a longtime Jordanian traveler, what he thought of today’s visitors, he pointed to the children. “It would be better if they stayed home,” he said.