'1st Time To See It Like This': Petra Tourism Workers Long For Visitors To Return

May 6, 2020
Originally published on May 7, 2020 8:51 am

In the ancient city of Petra, Jordan's best-known tourist destination, bird song echoes against the multicolored rock and the elaborate monuments instead of the din of tour groups and souvenir sellers.

The coronavirus pandemic has done what war did not — bring this Middle Eastern country's vital tourism industry to a dramatic halt, and with it, the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of workers.

"This is so strange — it is the first time to see it like this," says tour guide Mohammad Awwad, who had foreign tourists to lead through Petra even with war raging next door in Iraq in 2003. On March 15, Jordan closed archaeological sites and banned visitors from entering the country as it prepared its lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Awadallah Suleiman, a Sudanese migrant worker taking care of an empty souvenir shop on the road from Amman to Petra. The coronavirus pandemic has brought Jordan's vital tourism industry to a dramatic halt, and with it, the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of workers.
Moises Saman for NPR

Walking through the long, narrow passage between 300-foot-high canyon walls, it's so quiet you can hear the flutter of birds' wings.

At a cafe facing the Treasury, an elaborate colonnaded mausoleum carved into the rose-colored rock where tourists normally pose with camels, hungry cats jump up on empty tables and chairs. A hawk wheels high above the striated rock as the sun comes up behind the mountains. Sparrows hop along the gravel paths usually trod by tourists.

Most souvenir-shop owners have left their wares sitting on tables, as if they meant to come back any minute. Earrings dangle from a plastic stand next to an overturned sign advertising silver and soft drinks. Shelves open to the elements hold hundreds of bottles filled with colored sand artfully arranged in the shapes of camels and mountains.

An amphitheater on the grounds of Petra.
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Petra, which 2,000 years ago was on the thriving caravan trade route for frankincense and spices, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It also gained popularity with the 1989 movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with some scenes filmed at the location.

Last year, with an increase in cruise ships going to Jordan, as many as 8,000 people visited Petra some days, which was too many for it to handle, according to Suleiman Farajat, the chief commissioner of tourism and development in Petra.

"How strange is tourism? In one year, you start to have concerns about how to manage so many tourists. And within a couple of months you have zero tours," he says in his office, where huge windows overlook the sprawling ancient city.

Suleiman Farajat, chief commissioner for the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority, at his office overlooking the hills near Petra.
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More than 1 million people visited Petra last year, 80% of them from foreign countries. Surrounding villages filled with hotels and restaurants depend almost entirely on tourism.

Jordan took no chances with the coronavirus pandemic. After more than a month and a half of strict confinement measures, with 465 known cases and nine COVID-19-related deaths, the country has registered enough days with no new cases that it has reopened shops and allowed driving again. No cases were found in southern Jordan, where Petra is located.

Boys play soccer on a field in the Bedouin village of Um Sayhoun, near Petra.
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"At a certain stage you don't care about tourism, you care about health," says Farajat.

Bedouin tribes in the region believe they are descendants of the ancient Nabateans. Many belong to the Howeitat confederation of tribes that fought alongside Britain's Lawrence of Arabia during World War I.

In the first century, Petra was a thriving city of 20,000 people. By the time a devastating earthquake hit roughly three centuries later, trade routes had shifted and the city fell into decline. Petra had been forgotten to all but the Bedouins in the city until a Swiss explorer arrived in 1812.

Bedouin village elder Ali Mutlaq Salem sits on his roof in the village of Um Sayhoun, on the outskirts of Petra. Salem was born and raised in one of the caves in Petra.
Moises Saman for NPR

"We are the people who kept Petra secret for 500 years," says Ali Mutlaq Salem, 61, who was born and raised in one of the caves in Petra. The government relocated his and hundreds of other families to a new village in the 1980s.

From his rooftop in the village of Um Sayhoun in a house he built over the years with money from his souvenir shop, he points out the mountain in Petra where Aaron, the brother of the Prophet Moses, is believed to have been buried.

Salem's eldest son, Rizeq Ali, has an accounting degree, but normally makes a living taking tourists on mountain and desert trips. Seven years ago, when then-President Barack Obama visited Petra, Ali served him lunch.

"When he came I prepared a sand bottle with his name and his wife's name Michelle and he was really very nice," he says. They took a photo together and Ali says he told the president to come next time without all the security. "He was laughing," he says.

"The tourist business is really great," Ali says, but he says it has become too precarious: "The problem is when you have any problem around the world. Not in Jordan, around the world."

Portraits of Jordan's royal family adorn an empty guard post inside Petra. The site is now watched over by drones.
Moises Saman for NPR

Ali, 31, thinks maybe he'll try to find work in a bank.

A few miles away in a field with goats and chickens, Ali's cousin, Suleiman Mohammad, sits with his wife in a black goat-hair tent with no running water and no electricity. He has rigged up a car battery to power a light and charge his cellphone.

Mohammad was self-employed, making a living leading tourists through Petra on donkeys. With the collapse of the tourism industry he could no longer pay the $200-a-month rent for the house they lived in.

"We were renting house in a Bedouin village," he says as his wife, Azziza Ali, builds a fire with sticks to make tea. "The first month, [the owner] said, 'I don't want any money from you.' " Mohammad says it would have been shameful to stay a second month without paying rent, so they left.

Suleiman Mohammad and his wife, Azziza Ali, live in a tent after they were unable to pay the rent on their home since the lockdown affected their work in the tourism industry.
Moises Saman for NPR

He couldn't afford feed for his three donkeys, so he has put them out to pasture. The only income they have now is from selling eggs. To feed the chickens, he grinds corn with a circular rock moving around a metal peg.

A few nights ago, he says, a wolf came and carried away one of the goats.

Azziza Ali sits near the chickens, a large tan hat shading her pale skin from the sun.

"Of course living in the village was better, but circumstances changed," she says. "You have to pay rent there, you have to pay electricity and water and there was no way. God willing, if the coronavirus is gone and things get better, we will go back to the village and rent a house again."

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Ali Mutlaq Salem's grandchildren, Rizeq Ali's children, in the village of Um Sayhoun, on the outskirts of Petra. Most villagers here make a living from the tourism industry and are now out of work due to the lockdown measures that have effectively stopped tourism in Jordan and across most the world.
Moises Saman for NPR

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One of the most eerie experiences in this coronavirus pandemic has been looking at images of empty tourist hot spots around the world. There's Times Square. The Eiffel Tower also comes to mind. And also on that list is Jordan's ancient city of Petra, which is carved into sandstone cliffs in the desert. NPR's Jane Arraf traveled there.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: At our first stop on the bank of the Jordan River, believed to be where Jesus was baptized, workers disinfect a marble baptismal font. The site has already been shut down and sterilized since the pandemic emerged. The font for baptizing infants is getting an extra dose of bleach while visitors are gone. Along the gravel trail, the site's director, Rustom Mkhjian, points out that it's so quiet you can actually hear the wind rustling in the reeds.

RUSTOM MKHJIAN: The reeds that Jesus baptized being shaken by the wind like Jesus put it. This is it. This is having a site the way John and Jesus saw it to experience the grace of the site.

ARRAF: Before the pandemic, this had started off as a really good year for tourism in Jordan. Almost 25,000 people visited the site in January alone, 20% more than a year ago. When tourism does start again, it will focus first on Jordanian visitors. A few miles down the road, literally down to the lowest point on Earth, empty hotels and halted construction sites are strung along the shores of the Dead Sea. This would normally be high season for the glittering Kempinski Ishtar Hotel, where rooms start at $500 a night.

CORNELIA ZSCHUNKE: April would be a lots of weddings, events every Thursday, Friday, Saturday.

ARRAF: That's assistant manager Cornelia Zschunke. Instead of the usual 500 employees, it's just her and a few ground staff here. In the main hallway, the grand piano and the furniture are covered with white sheets. The most recent guests arrived on some of the last flights into Jordan and were quarantined here at government expense for two weeks. That would normally seem like a luxury except...

ZSCHUNKE: They cannot leave their rooms and the ACs are off. So, yeah, it's more difficult.

ARRAF: So there would be, like, 90 degrees in the rooms.

ZSCHUNKE: Mmm hmm.

ARRAF: That's pretty wild.

ZSCHUNKE: And the pools are closed, so it's basically you can only be in your room. You cannot go anywhere.

ARRAF: The hotel donated the cost of the quarantine back to the government.

SULEIMAN FARAJAT: This is the visitor's center. This is the entrance of the site.

ARRAF: Three hours south, Suleiman Farajat looks out the window of his office at Jordan's crown jewel of tourism - the ancient site of Petra, a city carved into multicolored rock more than 2,000 years ago. The director of the commission overseeing Petra, Farajat, says with an increase in cruise ships visiting Jordan, visitors have reached as high as 8,000 people a day. So many in the world heritage site, they had discussed before the pandemic how to limit the numbers.

FARAJAT: How strange is tourism. In one year, you start to make concerns about how to manage the so many tourists, and within a couple of months, you have zero tourists.

ARRAF: When we get to the site, the long rose-colored canyon leading to the start of the excavated city is full of birds again. More than a thousand people normally work at Petra. They're all gone. Our guide, Mohammad Awwad, says even in war time, it wasn't like this.

MOHAMMAD AWWAD: So much strange. You know, it's my first time to see it like this. It does not happen before. Even during the time of war, I did not see it empty like this.

ARRAF: The dogs and cats, normally fed by tourists and shop owners, mill around hungry. The din of tour groups and souvenir sales people, of camels and donkeys is gone. The multicolored rock that looks like melting ice cream echoes instead with the sound of birds. Abandon cafes overlook empty tables and chairs.

I'm standing in front of one of those little shops that sells bottles filled with different colors of the sand that you find here. And they pour it into the bottles so it looks like parts of Petra and camels and mountains. They've just left everything out. On another stand, there's silver earrings hanging from a stand. It's almost as if the world has disappeared.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Shouting in non-English language).

ARRAF: The people who live and work here are Bedouins, many from the Howeitat tribes who fought with Lawrence of Arabia. Ali Mutlaq Salem was born in one of the caves in Petra. In the nearby village that families were relocated to, you can see the ancient city from his rooftop.

ALI MUTLAQ SALEM: This is Petra. This is the center of Petra.

ARRAF: Salem built this house with money from tourism. But his son Rizeq says tourism has become too volatile.

RIZEQ: Tourist business is really great. But the problem when we have any problem around the world, it's not in Jordan - around the world.

ARRAF: Rizeq, who's 31, thinks maybe he'll try to find work in a bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOATS BLEATING)

ARRAF: A few miles away in a field with goats and chickens, we meet his cousin and see the real cost of the collapse in tourism. Suleiman Mohammad made his living by taking tourists around on donkeys. He and his wife are sitting in a goat-hair tent with no running water and no electricity. They couldn't afford the rent on their house anymore.

SULEIMAN MOHAMMAD: And I was renting house in Bedouin village. But the first month, the guy, he say, OK, I don't want money from you. But the second month, he says, you know, and they cannot stay more than this time there because it's for shame, you know, to press the people like this. And I decide to come here.

ARRAF: The only income he has now is from selling eggs.

AZZIZA ALI: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: His wife, Azziza Ali, says they're waiting for the crisis to end, for tourists to come back, for a chance to live in a house again and to see what the post-pandemic era will bring. Jane Arraf, NPR News, near Petra, Jordan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.