AMMAN, PETRA and AQABA, Jordan - This Middle Eastern country has been gaining interest in Korea since the popular TV drama "Incomplete Life" filmed a few of its first and last episodes there last year. It was also mentioned in many domestic news outlets when the hyped travel show "Grandpas Over Flowers" considered it for its next destination earlier this year, although it decided to go another way in the end.To make the most of this intrigue, the Jordan Tourism Board has decided to focus on luring Korean travelers to the nation. Attracting more tourists is crucial for the country that is roughly the same size as Korea because it doesn"t produce any oil or have an abundance of natural resources to export."Korea is one of the important markets to the Jordanian tourism industry", said Abed Al Razzaq Arabiyat, the managing director of the tourism board. "We hope we get more travelers from Korea so that soon a direct flight will launch between the two countries. We expect that will happen by next year".Although Korea has issued a low-level warning against traveling to Jordan, more than 15,000 Koreans visited the country last year. This number used to be larger, but regional turbulence due to extreme Islamic activists in nearby countries such as Syria has put a huge damper on Jordan"s attempt to boost its tourism industry, not only for Koreans but also for travelers worldwide. The country recorded 5.3 million visitors last year, a sharp decline from more than eight million in 2010. Tour guides were affected first. Since requests for guides have fallen sharply in the past years, those with no side job have had a hard time supporting their family, said Abdulla Abdwahsh, a mechanic who doubles as a guide. "I have been making it work because I have another business. Otherwise I would have struggled to support my family, just like many others who only had one job as a tour guide", he explained.Worried by the recent lukewarm interest in traveling to Jordan, the tourism board decided to take action and invest $10 million this year with funds from its public and private sectors. It has been inviting travel bloggers and journalists to show that it is safe despite the geopolitical disadvantages it currently faces. "We expect to see an increasing number of travelers by the end of this year", said Arabiyat. "[To match,] the country has been constructing more hotel rooms to triple the number of rooms in Jordan in the next five years". Jordan currently has around 28,000 rooms. A new travel hubDue to the dwindling number of visitors to its most well-known tourist destination, the Unesco World Heritage site Petra, Jordan felt the need to provide more extensive travel routes for visitors. Instead of just promoting the ancient dwelling, a historical and archaeological jewel formed by the Nabataean in the first century B.C, the tourism board decided to turn coastal city Aqaba on the Red Sea into a new travel hub. The southern city is only two hours away by car from Petra and an hour from the Wadi Rum desert known for its sand dunes and camel caravans - another major attraction. It is much more conveniently located than the capital city Amman, which has the country"s largest international airport, as it is over three hours away from Petra and four hours from Wadi Rum. Visitors can enjoy both watersports and easy access to inland destinations in Aqaba. The government decided to cut fees for airlines so that more will launch routes in and out of the city. It also expects to bring more international conferences and conventions to the locale so that event participants can spend an extra day or two sightseeing. It will also welcome more cruise ships to its harbor. To Jordanians, the coastal city is precious because the country would be landlocked without it. Jordan made a deal with Saudi Arabia 50 years ago, trading a piece of its land, in order to acquire the seaside area. "What happened in 1965 is that Jordan and Saudi Arabia concluded a bilateral agreement that realigned and delimited the boundary, resulting in some exchange of territory, allowing Jordan to expand its port facilities at Aqaba and protecting the pasturage and watering rights of certain nomadic tribes", said Nancy Tayyan, the head of the tourism marketing division at the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority.The area already has some luxury hotel chains including Kempinski and Intercontinental, as well as budget hotels. Many shops can arrange snorkeling or scuba diving. A celebrity welcomeWhile on a visit to historical sites near Amman such as Jerash or Ajloun Castle, this Korean reporter was shocked to receive a very excited welcome from students who surrounded her, screaming and asking to take photos. Chances are other Koreans who head to these areas will also receive the same treatment, as many young Jordanians seemed eager to meet residents of the country some of their favorite singers and actors are from. The large congregations of students in these tourist vicinities are due to the tourism board giving funding to local schools to ensure enough people are visiting Jordan"s historical sites. As a result, hundreds of students flood Jerash, one of the largest well-preserved sites of Roman architecture outside of Italy every day, or head to Ajloun Castle, a Muslim castle built in the 12th century. Thanks to the spread of Korean dramas and music shows online, many Jordanians have followed programs such as TV drama "The Heirs", featuring actor Lee Min-ho and actress Park Shin-hye, and "My Love from the Star" with actor Kim Soo-hyeon-I. Some are fans of K-pop groups such as Super Junior and Exo. The students introduced themselves as fans of these celebrities and some even spoke in Korean, explaining that they are learning the language by watching the shows online. It was easier to communicate with them in Korean than in English. Taima, one of the girls who conversed in Korean, even danced to "Sorry Sorry", one of the most popular songs by boy group Super Junior. Even if you"re just an ordinary Korea citizen you can experience what it would be like to live as a celebrity while in Jordan. Publicity shy? Avoid the crowds, cover yourself with a scarf and a pair of sunglasses and head to the Temple of Artemis, located about a 30-minute walk from the entrance. Perfect timingThe decrease in the number of visitors may be depressing news for Jordanians, but it works well for visitors as the country"s popular tourist destinations are not at all crowded. The night-time tour "Petra by Night", which allows travelers to see the famous stone-carved construction Al Khazneh, which featured in the 1989 film "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", also gave each participant enough time for a photo opportunity without other people in the background. A daytime walk into the site"s farthest monastery, called Ad Deir, is also very tranquil. Only a handfuls of travelers were spotted on the walk up the stairs. Even on arrival at the destination it was easy to get a clean shot of the natural stone landscape harmonizing with the human civilization in the monastery. Other popular religious travel locales such as Mount Nebo, where Moses is thought to have died, or Bethany, which is believed to be where Jesus Christ was baptized, are also free from hordes of tourists. Although Jordan is facing a dropping number of foreign visitors, the inflow of immigrants from neighboring countries enables travelers to meet plenty of people from different backgrounds. People who had left their homes in Syria or Palestine because of the situations there were everywhere - at stores, resorts or out on the streets - and were open to sharing their opinions on issues in the Middle East. Since Jordan shares its borders with Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, it is an ideal destination for people living in those nearby countries to visit. Because it has a variety of attractions such as mountains, coastal areas and developed cities, many people from those nations choose to go there on vacation. Another rare find is in Ma"in, about an hour away from the capital Amman and near the Dead Sea. The valley area spawns steam as the water running through its streams is heated from the volcanic mountains, creating natural hot springs. Anyone making a quick stop in town can use the public spa, but going to a resort is recommended for an overnight stay if you want to relax in a more secluded area. Whichever place you choose, make sure you walk into a natural cavernous sauna to relax in hot steam. Ordering a body scrub that uses salt from the Dead Sea is a must do. The treatment starts with being slathered in rich olive oil made from the crops of locally grown trees. The smell of the oil is so rich you may feel a sudden urge to find some bread and rub it on your body. If your skin is still crying out for additional moisture, try applying mud from the Dead Sea on it after checking out whether your body really stays afloat in the water. Safe or not?While traveling the country for about a week it was difficult to feel any danger around. Just like how Koreans don"t feel like their lives are on the line every time North Korea tops global news headlines, it felt like the news about strife surrounding Jordan didn"t have much to do with travelling the Middle Eastern country whose major national income comes from the tourism industry.Ironically, measures to keep hotels as safe as possible sometimes reminded many that there could be some danger. Just like how international airport require people pass through security with their luggage and belongings, many hotels and malls in Jordan also do a check at the entrance. A tour guide who can provide information and how to get around is recommended. Having a local who can accompany you throughout your trip to Jordan is helpful, as popular travel destinations are not easily accessible on public transportation. Do make sure to get travel alerts from your country as you will get automated updates regarding the situation in the area, if your country has a travel advisory issued on Jordan.
BY LEE SUN-MIN [[email protected]]There is no direct flight to Jordan from Korea. Many airlines based in the Middle East, such as Etihad Airways, offer connecting flights to Jordan from Seoul. A visa is required, but you can get it on arrival at an airport in Jordan before passing through customs. You can also visit the Jordanian Embassy in Korea to get a visa in advance. For more information about traveling to Jordan, go to www.visitjordan.com or call (+962) 6-5678444.