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How Jordan hopes that a brief visit from Pope Francis will help bring in the money

(Even though he’s only going to be there for a few hours).

Image: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

JORDAN, HOME TO many Islamic and Christian holy sites, hopes a visit this month by Pope Francis will promote religious tourism and boost an industry hit hard by regional turmoil.

Tourism contributes 12 per cent of gross domestic product in the desert kingdom and last year saw arrivals drop 10 per cent to 5.4 million with revenues falling 6.25 per cent to €2.2 billion.

Officials pin the drop to the political and security impact from Arab Spring revolts in the region and the war in neighbouring Syria that has pushed 600,000 refugees to flee to Jordan.

Tourism Board chief Abdul Razzaq Arabiat said:

We want to focus on religious tourism and make it a priority. It is least likely to be affected by political and economic issues.

Pope Francis visits the Holy Land on 24-26 May with the first stop in Jordan, home to seven million people including about 200,000 Christians, more or less evenly split between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

Mideast Jordan Petra Ecotourism Source: AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon

He will only spend a few hours in the tiny kingdom but his visit “will be a major opportunity to promote Christian religious tourism,” Arabiat said.

Baptism of Jesus

Jordan features three sites of great potential interest to Christians, including Wadi al-Kharrar, or Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where some biblical historians believe Jesus was baptised and began his public ministry.

It is impossible to determine accurately where the baptism took place, and another site on the Israeli-controlled western bank of the Jordan River is also venerated.

The remains of several churches, baptismal pools and a sophisticated water reticulation system — some dating to the Roman era — have been discovered in Wadi al-Kharrar.

Shutterstock-89869027 Greek Orthodox church in Bethany Beyond the Jordan Source: Shutterstock

Excavation in what had been a minefield separating Jordan and Israel only began in 1996, two years after the countries signed a peace treaty.

Early Christian pilgrims visited there on a route that took them from Jerusalem to nearby Jericho, across the river and then to the wind-swept peak of Mount Nebo.

Overlooking the Dead Sea and the hills of Jerusalem, this is where the Bible says God showed Moses the Promised Land after bringing the Hebrews out of Egypt.

Oldest known map of the Holy Land

Finally, there is the mainly Christian city of Madaba near Amman.

It houses the oldest known map of the Holy Land, painstakingly assembled from more than a million pieces of coloured stone on the floor of a Byzantine cathedral in the middle of the 6th century.

Travel Trip 5 Free Things Jordan Part of the famed mosaic map of the Middle East Source: AP Photo/Amir Bibawy

Previous popes

Pope Benedict XVI went to both Mount Nebo and Wadi al-Kharrar during his 2009 visit to the Holy Land, as did Pope John Paul II in 2000.

John Paul held a ceremony at the restored Byzantine church at Wadi al-Kharrar, which the Jordanians took as a confirmation that this was the baptismal site.

But in 2011, Israel opened to the public what officials there claim is the actual site in Qasr al-Yahud, a closed military area near Jericho.

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Desert castles 

Jordan is also hoping to attract tourists from other Muslim countries.

“We are preparing programmes to encourage tourists in countries such Indonesia and Malaysia to come to Jordan… after performing pilgrimage in Mecca to see Islamic sites here,” said Arabiat.

The tombs of many of the Prophet Mohammed’s companions are found in Jordan, one of the first territories to which Islam spread outside of the Arabian Peninsula.

And several important battles between Muslims and the Byzantine empire were fought there.

Also, Jordan’s 8th century desert castles give examples of early Islamic art and architecture, with their mosaics and frescoes inspired by Persian and Graeco-Roman traditions.

‘Government negligence’

Economist Yusuf Mansur, head of the Amman-based Envision Consulting Group, said a “clear strategy and funds” were needed to market religious tourism and draw the large crowds of visitors.

“The volume of tourism at the baptism site is still is low and the main reason for that is government negligence,” said Mansur.

The government needs to spend more money on efforts to improve religious sites, create more facilities there for tourists and market the sites internationally in a proper way.

Religious tourism tends to draw middle and higher income visitors over 50 but Jordan is expensive for younger people, said Arabiat.

The papal visit could help turn the tide long after he is gone and boost the industry overall, he said.

- © AFP, 2014

Read: Pope tells priests to be nicer to their congregations > 

Read: Jordanian TV debate gets so angry, the panellists destroy the studio > 

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