Aqaba is seeing a resurgence in tourism numbers having been hit by regional unrest across the Middle East.
Nasser Shraideh, chief commissioner for Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA), says 2010 was a “golden year” for tourism to Jordan, but following the Arab Spring and the ensuing regional unrest, Jordan’s reputation for safety suffered despite the situation in the country remaining calm.
Having lost up to 65% of all international visitors in Aqaba between 2010 and 2015, Shraideh adds travellers are returning to the city on the Red Sea coast with a 68% increase last year and a boost of about 55% in the first six months of this year, giving a total of 477,322 arrivals.
He says: “Between 2011 and 2016 we were severely affected by what was going on in the region and we witnessed a decrease in many tourist flows from different markets.
“Over the past two years we have been working aggressively to reestablish our networks, and reach out to our traditional as well as new markets.”
He adds, as travellers return, that Russia is proving to be a major market with 120,000 visitors received in the first six months this year, the same amount as in the whole of 2017.
Meanwhile Germany, the UK and Scandinavia remain key markets, with the promise of winter sun proving particularly popular as the whole of Jordan reports an 8.7% increase in visitor numbers, from 4.78 million in 2016 to 5.19 million in 2017.
Shraideh says both the German and the UK markets are expected to get a boost from easyJet’s new weekly flights, following the launch from Berlin Schoenefeld airport on November 3 while the Gatwick flight launches on November 10. Once operating to Aqaba, easyJet will find itself in good company, Shraideh adds. Royal Jordanian offers a double daily service from Amman, Turkish Airlines operates three times a week out of Istanbul, while Ryanair offers twice-weekly services to the port from Sofia, Rome, Cologne and Athens.
While the airlines currently receive support from the Jordan Tourism Board, this will be switched off in March 2019 when Fly Aqaba launches, with the focus on tour operators alone.
Shraideh says the destination offers them a $5 per person per night incentive and “this subsidy can increase if tour operators can significantly develop the numbers we receive from certain markets”.
Further afield, Shraideh admits the Far East is on the radar, but adds: “We are taking it seriously, but we will be focusing on nearby markets. Maybe after 2020 we will pay more attention to the Far East.”
He says while ASEZA will continue to market its traditional “Golden Triangle” attractions of Petra, Wadi Rum and Red Sea diving, the city is undergoing works to attract tourists.
The partially completed Ayla project includes hotels, beach clubs, a marina and golf course, while a new cultural centre will open its doors in 2019.
In doing so, Shraideh says he plans to maintain what makes Aqaba so special. He adds: “We would like to see Jordan as a quality destination, one that can provide visitors with a unique experience.”
Aqaba is introducing its own airline in March next year in a bid to grow its attractiveness as a year-round destination.
Nasser Shraideh, Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority’s (ASEZA) chief commissioner, says Fly Aqaba will have two Airbus A320 aircraft and an Embraer, with capacity for about 72 seats when it takes off in 2019.
It will be majority owned by ASEZA with the Ayla project, a new leisure development being built in the city, taking a 10% stake.
Shraideh says: “We hope that other private-sector operators pitch in – this is a key issue not only for tourism, but also for investment too.”
He added the airline will operate regular, year-round scheduled services with aircraft available for charter bookings too. Although routes are yet to be finalised, Shraideh says he hopes to offer initial services to Beirut, Cairo and Dubai within the region while further afield, Germany, the UK, Russia and Scandinavia are key destinations.
He says that by controlling its own airline, ASEZA should be able to meet one of its targets of making Aqaba a full year-round destination.
“We’ve been working with various airlines, but were never able to convince them to maintain their operations to Aqaba.
“They’ve been coming and going based on the month and that affected us very badly because we could not really maintain in the long term the momentum that we created.”