AMMAN, Jordan — Sitting in a modest office in his palace, Jordan’s King Abdullah II sounded like a prophet of old describing a divine encounter from the Bible as he revealed his vision.
He sees an angel descending to the banks of the River Jordan and greeting tourists. The angel will point out the exact spot where Jesus is believed to have been baptized and provide further context that blends the physical, historical and spiritual at “Bethany Beyond the Jordan,” a site regarded as holy by many Christians.
However, the monarch, somewhat sporty in a flight jacket and red tie, was describing not a spiritual vision but the deployment of the most modern of technologies: augmented reality.
With augmented reality, or AR, tourists wearing special headgear could see a blend of the physical reality of the country with holograms, to create a worldly/other-worldly experience. “I think you are going to see augmented-reality tourism in Jordan earlier than you might expect,” he said.
When I later showed the king a miniature, twin-lens, 360-degree camera I had with me that had been on the market for only three months, he said, “Oh yes, I have something similar attached to the top of my motorcycle helmet.”
It’s hard to impress a king.
He referred to “some friends of mine” — including movie directors Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and James Cameron — who share a passion for his “hobby” of technology and gadgets and are working with him to help make Jordan a center for film production in the Middle East.
A film institute has been established in Aqaba, and portions of “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon, were shot in the country, as were segments of a live-action “Aladdin,” to be released in 2019 and starring Will Smith.
I asked him to come down off his throne, metaphorically speaking, and put himself in the chair of a U.S. travel agent who had just received an inquiry about visiting his country. What would he recommend?
“First, I would say it’s a very safe place to go and that the people are very open and hospitable,” he began.
While it’s highly unlikely he’s considering a career change, I concluded he would make an excellent travel adviser. His next step was to qualify the client.
“Then, I would want to see what type of person is sitting at the table,” he said. “If they were older, perhaps they’d be most interested in historic sites, Petra and [the Roman ruins of] Jerash. If there are religious inclinations, we have the Baptism Site. The Dead Sea, just for the experience; the Red Sea for scuba diving.”
The king became noticeably animated when he began to talk about the desert region.
“You’ve got to do Wadi Rum,” he said. “That’s my favorite. It’s just a magical place, outstanding, especially for an overnight. A week before graduation, I would spend the night there with the senior class of the King’s Academy, a private boarding school, and I used to have birthday parties for my eldest son [Crown Prince Hussein] there. We would camp out, and now it has become a favorite place of his, too.”
I asked whether there was someplace less well known, somewhere he would almost hate to talk about for fear it would become too popular.
“Mujib, near the [southern end] of the Dead Sea,” he said. “You’re going to have fun in Mujib. It’s basically Petra with a river running through it. A bit of swimming, climbing, little cascades and waterfalls. It’s adventure tourism.”
The king continued: “You start at the Dead Sea and go against the current, and halfway through, you come to a 120-foot waterfall. You can’t get beyond that. You can do it the other way, but you’d have to rappel down [near the waterfall]. The nice thing about the place is that, because the water floods through every year, it changes the rocks around, and the route through the gorges is completely different.”
There’s a hidden Jordan being revealed bit by bit, as well. “You’re only seeing 10% of Petra now,” he said. “We’ll never see it all in our lifetime.”
Moreover, attractions exist in Jordan that, for the time being at least, are royal secrets.
“There is a place in Wadi Rum we are trying to keep quiet,” he said. “It has rock formations [that jut out in unusual ways]. There’s only one way to enter, and there are insects and spiders you don’t see anywhere else.
“Once, when I was commander of special forces, we were mountain climbing at our ranger school in the north, and some of my soldiers found ancient buildings, including one of the oldest churches in Jordan. There were mosaics on the floor. It was spectacular. We talked with the antiquities department, and they said, ‘Just cover it up.’ We’ve got so many antiquities, we just can’t get to them all.”
Unusual and little-known
I interviewed the king while in the country with a delegation of 70 travel industry professionals on a trip organized by the nonprofit Tourism Cares and the Jordan Tourism Board. The trip focused on sites detailed on the Meaningful Travel Map of Jordan, created by the two organizations.
The map features activities tourists can visit that are not only unusual and little-known but that directly benefit local communities. The king was aware of the group’s presence. Of the 12 sites detailed on the map, he was particularly interested in the 400-mile Jordan Trail, which winds from the north near the Syrian border to Saudi Arabia in the south. Those who undertake that six-week trek get an up-close and personal look at the country, and they spend money in local villages along the way.
“That’s where you will [form] a relationship with the communities,” he said.
Other sites on the map showcase an ecolodge, a cafe featuring locally produced organic food, a local carpet weaving initiative and other social enterprises that bring tourism to economically challenged areas.
The King Abdullah II Fund for Development supports two other tourism-related projects. The Urdon Shop in Amman is a marketplace for products made by various local communities, and the Jordan Heritage Revival Company reenacts historic events. Its actors portray Nabateans in Petra, Roman soldiers in Jerash and Ayyubids and Crusaders in Shobak.
In Wadi Rum, tourists board a train (“It’s sort of like the Orient Express, but a slightly cheaper version”) and are “attacked” by Ottoman soldiers but protected by Arabs. (The king’s forebears led the Great Arab Revolt in 1916 that drove the Turks from the region.)
The actors who play the part of soldiers — ex-police and military, mostly — can also have a complementary role in the king’s plans to make Jordan a regional filmmaking capital, providing an instant “mega-army” of foot soldiers in historical movies, he said.
“Tourism’s role in the economy is huge and impacts many downstream industries,” he said. “Sometimes I have a problem with our national airline when they put ticket prices too high. From their point of view, they want to make a profit. But more tourists coming in will benefit hotels, restaurants, taxi drivers, tourist sites, tourist guides, souvenir shops. This is something governments don’t always understand. You’ve got to look at this in totality. You may have a loss here, but if you make it inclusive, more Jordanians can live off visitation.”
Tourism itself is changing, he observed.
“Medical tourism is a big moneymaker; the standard of our medical care is very good,” he said. “The U.K. has long waits in their national health service, but [Brits] can come to Jordan at half the price, if not less, and get in very quickly. We’re currently [the] No. 5 [most popular destination for medical tourism], but laws need to be changed to make that better. We’re trying to pass a law through Parliament to allow malpractice suits, but the medical association is pushing against it. I tell Jordanians, ‘It’s as good for you as it is for foreigners.'”
Listening to the monarch’s optimistic view of the future, which appears to be shared by every Jordanian I met during my week in the country, it’s easy to forget that Jordan is in a region where tensions can run high and perceptions can be reshaped by just one headline.
The king seems unperturbed by the ebb and flow of current events.
“You know, when we lost a lot of the Western tourism during the Arab Spring, we actually increased in Arab visitors who used to go to Egypt and Lebanon,” he said. “The Arabs view Jordan as a safe destination — they obviously know something that other potential visitors don’t — but we are seeing visitors coming back in large numbers. Wadi Rum had an improvement of 75% last year. I think it was ‘The Martian.’ [Movies can] bring people.”
A bigger tourism-related issue, in the king’s estimation, is increasing the number of hotel rooms.
“One of the challenges is getting critical mass,” he said. “Our winter season grabs a lot of European traffic because people want to sit on a beach that has good weather. So, new projects in Aqaba will help, and tourists can stay longer. It’s a chicken and egg situation, but now [with more hotels], we’re getting more flights.”
Leaving the palace, I thought about how the image of every country in the Middle East is negatively impacted by the worst activity of its neighbors, and I pondered why there’s so little halo effect from inspiring, positive activity. Jordan’s reality — even prior to its augmented reality — speaks of the region’s better angels. It’s a destination that will appeal to those who choose to live, rather than to live in fear.