Travel Agents in The Middle East: Amazed and Unafraid
The Jordan Tourism Board invited a group of 16 travel agents on a familiarization tour of Jordan, but the incendiary news reports involving the legendary ISIS created so much fear that four participants dropped out before the tour started.
The remaining group of 12 is traveling around Jordan right now, and those who stayed with it are reporting to TravelPulse that they are having a great time.
The seven-day tour is a quick review of the great variety of experiences available to travelers in Jordan. The itinerary includes a tour of the Jordanian capital of Amman; the ruins of the Roman city of Jerash; Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John the Baptist is believed to have baptized Jesus; the lost city of Petra with its monumental pillars carved into sandstone cliffs; a Bedouin camp in the great desert known as Wadi Rum; time to lounge and float on the Dead Sea; a visit to the Dana Nature Reserve; the Evason Ma’in Hot Springs; and many more points of interest.
Malia Asfour, director of the Jordan Tourism Board, said Jordan was grateful to those who decided to stay with the trip in spite of frightening news reports.
“This is huge for us because they went to Jordan trusting us and not letting sensational media deter them from experiencing Jordan,” said Asfour.
TravelPulse spoke to some of the agents by telephone from Jordan. Their voices on the phone sounded euphoric. It was as if the experience of actually being in Jordan had blown away any fears they may have had and opened them to an ecstatic experience of being fully present in a place that seemed to bear no resemblance to the scary images they had seen on TV.
“It’s my first trip to Jordan and I’m just loving it,” said Monika Leuenberger, a travel agent from Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, Ariz. “I have so many friends and family who were so worried about it. Family members and clients were like, ‘Wow, you’re going to Jordan? Wow, you’re brave, or you’re crazy,’ or whatever. But as soon as we got to Jordan, wow! People are so welcoming here in Jordan. I feel very comfortable.”
As the group traveled around the country, they were welcomed by people on the street.
“Driving around the city, people look at you,” said Leuenberger. “It’s pretty obvious you are a tourist, and people are smiling at you, waving. They’re making you feel welcome. These are not people in the tourist industry, they are just the regular people. The people on the street are friendly and seem to be doing well. It’s a country that is happy. People are doing well and it shows.”
Leuenberger was surprised at the range of experiences presented in the one-week trip.
“I cannot believe the diversity because it’s such a small country,” she said. She was especially surprised by the Dana Nature Reserve.
“I couldn’t believe how green it was up there!” she said. “They have all these hiking trails. You would have no idea you were somewhere in the Middle East. They have wild boars, wolves, hyenas, all these animals. A lot of wildlife is still here.”
In contrast was the site known as Bethany beyond the Jordan, believed to be the site of Jesus’ baptism.
“Everybody was spiritually moved,” said Leuenberger. “It’s such a historical site. It’s amazing to be at a place like that with that history. There is a lot to talk about.”
Leuenberger was of course moved by the site of Petra, Jordan’s most famous World Heritage site. As well publicized as Petra is, Leuenberger was still surprised at how the actual experience differed from her preconceptions.
“I always thought you would go to Petra for one day,” she said. “But if you have people who are outdoorsy, and are active and want to do things, they really need to spend at least three days there because there are so many trails of so many different types. All we had time for was to go up to the Monastery. But that was an amazing hike. The views are incredible from up there. They have these goats running around there, and dogs that are friendly.”
She was impressed by the way the site is maintained.
“They have great facilities throughout the whole park,” she said. “It was impressive because in the U.S. when you go into that kind of landscape, like Canyonlands, you’re on your own. Here you have toilets, and flushing water and restaurants. The infrastructure is very well taken care of.”
The group had a cooking lesson at Mövenpick hotel at Petra; did a jeep tour at Wadi Rum and had tea and lunch with their Bedouin hosts and rode a camel; then went to the Dead Sea and enjoyed spa treatments and floating on the mineral-rich waters.
“There is so much to do,” said Leuenberger. “I had no idea how much diversity was here.” And because of the apprehensions and fears, the sites were not crowded.
Jason Holland, a travel agent of Travel Simplicity in Etters, Pa., told TravelPulse it was his second trip to the Middle East. The first was to Israel.
“It’s wonderful,” he said. “I’m really enjoying myself. I was not really concerned until people started telling me I should be concerned. I was going to go either way. Their concerns did make me think about it and start looking at what the news was saying. But I reached out to the tourism bureau. I knew they would take good care of us and certainly would direct us if we needed to change something. But even so, you’re never sure what to expect until you get here. Certainly being here, if I hadn’t heard anything on the news I wouldn’t think anything was going on anywhere close to here.”
Holland was surprised at how at home he felt in Jordan.
“I love it,” he said. “I think it’s great. I love the mix of environments. I really like that we’re here this time of year. It’s getting toward spring and the flowers are starting to bloom. I like the variety of the landscape. Some of it actually reminds me of Pennsylvania, which surprised me. I didn’t expect it to be so green. And then you have that to the other extreme of the desert. But even the different deserts are unique. Going down to Petra it was flat and sand dunes and then today at Wadi Rum they have these massive monolithic rocks protruding through the soil.”
Holland hiked the 850 steps to the Monastery on top of a mountain at Petra.
“It was quite a workout,” he said. “It is a fantastic view at the top. And you’re glad you made it.”
Petra was far beyond his expectations, Holland said.
“It is iconic in people’s minds,” he said. “But as many pictures as I’ve seen of elements of it, it doesn’t do it justice. You can’t imagine until you’re standing there and walking there and seeing it come alive. Petra was probably the most awe-inspiring part of the trip so far.”
With Petra getting so much attention, many of Jordan’s other points of interest remain hidden in the shadows. Few people think of Jordan as part of the Roman empire, with some of the best preserved Roman ruins in the world at the city of Jersash.
“I didn’t expect to like Jerash as much as I did,” said Holland. “I really enjoyed the Roman ruins and the fact that so many of them are so well preserved. You have all those columns standing there and you are walking through seeing the mosaics. It was incredible.”
Rome is present even in downtown Amman.
“It’s fascinating,” he said, “you are walking around the markets in downtown Amman and you come across the Roman theater there. You have this amazing juxtaposition of Roman ruins set right alongside of the city market. You have the new and the old all mixed together. I think that’s fascinating.”
Most striking for these agents, and others in the same situation, is the huge contrast between what they experience and what they are led to expect from the ongoing procession of horrifying images they see on their TV screens.
“I think the biggest thing is that people need to get over their fear. And until they get over their fear they’re not going to experience many wonderful places. One of those is Jordan."
“I think the biggest thing is that people need to get over their fear,” said Holland. “And until they get over their fear they’re not going to experience many wonderful places. One of those is Jordan.
“One thing I was not expecting when I came to Jordan was how friendly people are. Not that I didn’t expect them to be friendly, but they are among the friendliest people I’ve come across in my travels. I don’t know why that is, but I’ve just really appreciated their hospitality and their warmth. It almost takes me back. It almost feels like they’re trying to get something out of you, but they’re not. They’re just that friendly. I’ve really enjoyed that.
“It makes me sad. People are missing out on opportunities just because they’re afraid. When fear is founded in reality that’s one thing, you certainly need to take care of yourself. But when it’s not based in reality, when you’re just afraid because you’re afraid, that’s just sad. You’re just harming yourself at that point.
“I think that happens a lot. People just don’t know. They haven’t been there they haven’t experienced it.
“I’ve always been a believer that travel has the potential to positively change our lives. I know it’s done that in my life, and in my wife’s life.”