Tourists return to Jordan

Nearly two years of renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence has taken a toll on travel to Jordan: 50 percent fewer North Americans visited in the first six months of 2002, compared with the same period in 2000, before the most recent skirmishes began. Tourism has always been a key industry in Jordan, normally accounting for 12 percent of the annual GDP. But the Jordanian government is hoping to bring visitors back by demonstrating that the country is a safe destination despite the turmoil next door: it broke ground in June on a $7.5 million tourist center overlooking the Dead Sea.

Set 1,500 feet above the water, the Dead Sea Panoramic Complex will house a museum; four exhibition halls with displays on the region's geology, ecology, and history; and lookout points with views of the Jordan Valley and the West Bank. The complex, due to open in 2004, will provide easy access to many biblical sites, including Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan, where John the Baptist is believed to have lived and preached, and Mount Nebo, the supposed location of Moses' death and burial. A new seven-mile road will also link nearby hotels on the Dead Sea with mineral spas outside the historic town of Madaba, famous for its ancient mosaics.

According to spokesperson Fouad Aghabi, the government hopes the complex will be a "major attraction that will help reverse the recent decline." Janet Moore, owner of Distant Horizons, a California-based tour operator specializing in trips to the Middle East, says that many Americans perceive the entire Middle East as being dangerous. "We're very confident about tourists being safe in Jordan."