Can Jordan’s ‘Indiana Jones’ city of Petra survive as tourists stay away?

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Jordan tourism numbers down, historic buildings at risk

"Unfortunately we have some very noisy neighbors," says one Petra tour guide

CNN  — 

Tourism should be booming in Jordan but visitor numbers are down, historic buildings are in danger of collapse and hotels are struggling.

The recent discovery of a massive new monument in the abandoned “Indiana Jones” city of Petra should be a cause for rejoicing but tourists are staying away from this peaceful Middle Eastern kingdom.

“We are a very quiet country,” says Waleed Hyasat, who guides tourists around Petra. “But unfortunately we have some very noisy neighbors.”

At the turn of the new millennium Petra was receiving more than 700,000 visitors a year but the 21st century has been a turbulent time in the Middle East and nowadays the average visitor figure hovers near 425,000.

Hyasat says he’s thinking of emigrating to the United States if tourism doesn’t pick up.

Petra is Jordan’s biggest tourist attraction, its world-famous heritage status enhanced by being the setting for the finale of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

In June satellites and archeological survey drones revealed a huge ceremonial platform to the south of the ancient city center.

It’s as long as an Olympic-size swimming pool and twice as wide.

READ: 17 signs you might be in Jordan

Preserved from destruction

Petra, one of the Middle East's most enigmatic cities, is known for its rose-hued ancient sandstone architecture.

Nobody knows what it was used for but archaeologists around the world are excited.

Could this be the discovery that finally unlocks the meaning of the Middle East’s most enigmatic city?

Petra was a great trading capital city in 7th century BC. It was founded by an Arab tribe known as the Nabataeans who abandoned it a thousand years later.

Fortunately their massive buildings, carved top to bottom into the cliff face, were preserved from destruction, hidden down a narrow valley.

For more than 1,000 years Petra was forgotten by the outside world. It was only rediscovered by Europeans in 1812 when a Swiss explorer was led down the valley by local Bedouin.

Since then its mysterious buildings have become Jordan’s biggest tourist attraction. Without oil reserves Jordan is heavily reliant on tourism, which contributes 15% to its GDP.

But things started to go wrong after the first Gulf War.

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‘Surrounded by chaos’

Jewelry seller Marguerite van Geldermalsen.

Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a New Zealand-born nurse who married a Bedouin souvenir-seller from Petra at that time, has seen the tourist business decline, first after the 1990-91 conflict then after September 11, 2001.

“Since 2010 the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria have had bad effects too,” she says. “Every time things calm down something happens and our visitor numbers always suffer.”

Today Van Geldermalsen sells jewelry made by local Bedouin women from her stall opposite Petra’s amphitheater.

“People here are dependent on Petra bringing in lots of tourists. It’s not much fun for visitors to see sad looking vendors”.

At the Kempinski Ishtar, a luxury tourist hotel north of Petra, general manager Sebastien Meriette insists Jordan is a safe place to visit.

“But we’re surrounded by chaos and this affects international tourism,” he says.

“Before the Arab Spring 70% of guests were international and 30% local. Now it’s 40% international and 60% local. Russian tourists still come but Jordan is not regarded as safe in the States.”

MORE: ‘Massive’ monument found in ancient Petra

Exciting development

Mohammad Abdelaziz.

Meriette is French and admits that when he came to Jordan he was unsure about bringing his family with him.

But he’s found the country tranquil even as he’s watched business decline by 15% in the last decade.

“And this hotel is doing well compared to the others!” he adds.

Mohammad Abdelaziz, curator of the Petra Archeological Park since 1988, says the dip in tourist numbers has also affected development and stabilization of the site.

“Petra has been on the World Heritage List since 1985 and we were voted second of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, but the dip in income from tourism means there’s no money for development,” Abdelaziz says.

“We still get missions. This year Brown University is excavating but the funding for these digs is usually international.”

With visitor numbers down Abdelaziz admits there isn’t enough money for maintenance.

It's estimated that the Great Temple complex spans 7,000 square meters.

“The Great Temple itself needs stabilizing but when you consider in the Petra area we have Stone Age, Iron Age, Nabataean, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader and Marmeluke sites, it’s obvious Jordan cannot fund its own heritage.”

At the moment archaeologists believe that more than 80% of Petra is yet to be uncovered, which is why finding the great platform in June 2016 was such an exciting development.

But there are local moves to involve the community and make Petra less dependent on outside resources.

Aysar Akrawi is a small gray-haired woman who helped set up the Petra National Trust in 1989 to ensure the preservation of the site.

“We’re not archaeologists or conservationists but we will get involved if no one else is doing it,” Akrawi says.

Since 2009 Akrawi has been running a “young ranger” project to involve local teenagers in the preservation of Petra.

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Vandalism and graffiti

Shahed Qassem, student.

“Yes, we were employing local people but we had not started involving the community,” she says. “Jordanians were not identifying with their environment. The rocks of Petra were a source of income for them – not of identity.”

Akrawi and her team of local volunteers run popular courses to help teenagers identify with their heritage. They study wider issues like confrontation resolution and very specific courses directed at vandalism and graffiti.

“Jordanians are a very gentle people but even they say, ‘why can’t we manage Petra ourselves?,’” Akrawi says.

“They don’t want to feel that we helicopter in everything from Amman. It is this marginalization of people in rural areas that has given support to groups like ISIS in the Middle East.”

According to Akrawi, “With 60% of the Jordanian population under 25, training up young Jordanians to look after their country’s heritage is the first step if we want to change our country.”

Shahed Qassem is 12-years-old. Every weekend she takes a two-hour bus journey to Petra to study and refers to the historic city as her mother.

“I feel that I have been a very neglectful daughter and now I wish to look after my mother.”

With outsiders still wary of the Middle East it may be people like Qassem who will hold the future of Jordan’s historic sites.

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Adrian Mourby is an Oxford, UK-based novelist and broadcaster.