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A beleaguered Jordan prays for an Asian tourism revival

Inside a Russian Orthodox church near the site where Jesus was baptized (Photo by Peter Guest)

AMMAN On the summit of Mount Nebo, a Franciscan church overlooks arid slopes that lead down to the edge of the Dead Sea, ringed by spas and resorts. It is dry in October, but by spring the land is green. This is the tip of the Fertile Crescent, the curve of land stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates River that cradled early civilizations.

Nebo is where the Bible says the prophet Moses -- a pivotal figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- first set eyes on the land promised to him by God. Not far away, among the reeds of the Jordan River, is the site believed by Christians to be where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.

This Russian Orthodox church is located near Jesus' baptism site on the east bank of the Jordan River. (Photo by Peter Guest)

On the hill above, four new churches stand on the ruins of ancient places of worship, which were rediscovered in the 1990s after Jordan and neighboring Israel signed a peace treaty. Jericho is clearly visible from the hillside; on a clear day, so is Jerusalem.

"We could safely argue that Christianity started in Jordan," said Lina Mazhar Annab, Jordan's minister of tourism and antiquities. "We are probably the most significant country in the world when it comes to Christian tourism."

Even so, down by the baptism site the religious gift shop that sells souvenirs and holy water is mostly empty; it is not the height of the season, but visitor numbers are not encouraging.

In 2010, before the outbreak of conflict in Syria, Jordan's northern neighbor, tourism made up between 13% and 15% of Jordan's gross domestic product. That has now fallen to around 11% as visitors from traditional markets in Europe stay away, deterred by their unease over the security situation in the Arab world.

This old church was built on a site along the Jordan River close to where Jesus is said to have been baptized. (Photo by Peter Guest)

"It's the perception of the region," Annab said. "We have not managed to differentiate Jordan from the [rest of the] Middle East."

Despite its challenging neighborhood, Jordan remains stable and relatively secure. It has been more than a decade since tourist infrastructure in the capital, Amman, was struck by terrorists, and the kingdom is considerably more socially progressive than its regional neighbors.

To offset the shortfall in arrivals, Jordan is looking to emerging tourism markets in Asia. Chinese tourists, Annab said, are "not as bombarded by media reports that you would see in Europe or America," and so are less likely to fall victim to preconceived notions of how risky the country is. "I think they are more resilient," she said. "China is definitely a more important market for us. We are not seeing the numbers that we should be seeing -- it's still very modest -- however, it's growing. And the rate of growth is very healthy."

South Korea is another prospect: Many South Korean Christians travel to holy sites in Israel, but Jordan has been less successful in marketing itself to them. In April, the Jordan Tourism Board opened an exhibition in Seoul, and Annab has just hosted a delegation of senior South Korean media executives in the hope of boosting their perceptions of the kingdom. The ministry is also working with its counterparts in Egypt to market the two countries to package tour operators in Asia, in the hope that a joint ticket will be more attractive for long-haul tourists.

Lina Mazhar Annab, Jordan's minister of tourism and antiquities (Photo by Peter Guest)

Tourism is important here because the kingdom is facing considerable economic challenges in spite of its political stability. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq prompted Jordan to close its borders with both countries, cutting off trade worth billions of dollars. That compounded the damage done by an economic slowdown after the 2008 global financial crisis that saw the annual rate of economic growth fall from more than 8% in 2006 and 2007 to less than 3% in 2015.

REFUGEE BURDEN The downturn has been particularly challenging due to the high number of refugees in Jordan -- about 1.5 million have crossed the border from Syria since 2011, adding to previous migrations of Iraqis and Palestinians. Jordan now hosts more refugees than any other nation, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, placing an enormous social and economic burden on a country whose native population is only around 7 million. That growth has strained social services, pushed up the cost of renting property several times over, and created considerable stress on the country's already overstretched water resources.

Government spending shot up by 38% between 2010 and 2014, and the country borrowed heavily to cover its widening fiscal deficit. Since 2011, Jordan's public debt has increased from just under $19 billion to more than $35 billion; its debt-to-GDP ratio now stands at 90%. The government says it needs to raise revenues by $8 billion a year to meet spending commitments, including $2.5 billion for refugee costs, $2.3 billion to build resilience in the economy and a further $3.2 billion in budget support.

A U.N. summit for refugees in September raised billions of dollars in pledges; among those helping is Japan, which offered $2.8 billion in support for countries hosting large numbers of displaced people. An unspecified but sizable portion of this will go to Jordan.

Amman, Jordan's capital (Photo by Peter Guest)

Amer Sabaileh, a local economic and political analyst, said Jordan's reliance on external support is a historical problem that has been exacerbated by the current political backdrop. "With this continuous crisis, we can't depend on others," he said. "That's why our debt is going up in a crazy way."

Sabaileh said the country's largest challenge was not the refugee crisis but the absence of a strong development model that can create jobs and growth. The crisis, he said, could be an opportunity for Jordan. "Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo are all absent [from participation in regional affairs because of domestic preoccupations]," he said. "Amman could play a role as a hub, even on a cultural level."

Minister of Youth Rami Wreikat said it is important that international support goes beyond money for refugees and supports Jordanian jobs as well. He noted rising tension in some areas between locals and Syrians, who are often willing to take work for lower pay than their hosts. "Unemployment in Jordan is already a high number," he said. "Jordanians can't compete with Syrians."

The ministry of youth was closed to save money, but it has recently been revived in recognition of the challenge of creating jobs for the country's young population -- about 70% of Jordanians are under 35. The official unemployment rate is 14.7%, but international observers say that is probably a conservative estimate. Government and business figures in Jordan are quick to acknowledge that this is a concern, and that they worry it could become a breeding ground for insecurity.

"Tourism can be a big part of the solution," Annab said. "Today, employment in tourism is between 12% and 15%. It's good, but I think if we manage to do it right, it should be at least 30%. ... Granted, there is unemployment; however, tourism is labor-intensive. If you look at the profile of people who are employed in the tourism sector, they are predominantly the youth."

The first challenge is to shrug off the images that have come to define the region -- of refugees camped on Jordan's borders, and the war from which they are fleeing. Annab said she will not pretend that everything is rosy, but she is certain that Jordan can make its case to Asia and the world.

"We have two choices," she said. "Either to be dragged into these doom and gloom scenarios that have been drawn for the region, or we create our own narrative."

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