[Amman] Blond American tourists were common visitors to bustling downtown Amman, wearing the traditional Middle Eastern kefiyahs, as they combed the market looking for souvenirs.
The centre of the capital Amman was once a mecca for tourists, who were often seen on the congested streets, draped with their flashy cameras, visiting the Roman amphitheatre in the heart of the capital, and enjoying the flavor of their Middle-Eastern experience after trips to Petra and the Dead Sea.
But the political turmoil that has gripped the Middle East for the past few years has driven away Western tourists.
Americans in particular are now as rare a commodity as peace and stability in the neighbouring countries of Iraq, the Palestinian areas, Israel, and Lebanon.
Haidar Ziadat, director of the Jordan Travel and Tour Agencies Association says security warnings issued by American authorities to its citizens around the world has had a profound impact on the number of U.S. and Western tourists visiting Jordan.
"We consider American tourism as the most important in term of spending. We hope it will increase if the American president succeeds in making peace. This will encourage many to come," says Ziadat.
The peaceful kingdom, ruled by a monarch who embraces reform and modernism, has fallen victim to its geographical location.
Jordan, with a population of 5.6 million, is an island in a sea of political instability, whose moderate leadership and close ties with the West made the country a safe haven for decades.
Millions of refugees from war-ravaged places including Iraq, the Palestinian areas, and Lebanon have made Jordan their home seeking a sense of normality.
Still, it is very difficult for folks across the Atlantic to distinguish between Jordan and Iraq, laments Tareq Atiyah, the bartender in a restaurant in Jabal Amman, regularly visited by foreigner employees after a long day’s work.
"We welcome Americans with open arms because they are our guests and we always treat our guests with respect," says Atiyah.
"We want them to come here to show our hospitality and how safe this country is."
The Jordanian government has embarked on an aggressive campaign to promote the kingdom in the United States and Europe hoping to attract more visitors.
"We expect more American tourists to visit Jordan this year, since Petra was chosen as one of the Seven Wonders of the World," says Fayyadh Sukkar, head of the statistics department at the Ministry of Tourism.
The campaign seems to have paid off, and ministry figures show a steady but small increase in the numbers of American tourists visiting Jordan. The numbers are still pretty dismal though.
In the first 11 months of 2007, 166,000 American tourists visited the country, an increase of four percent compared to the previous year.
Shop owners and street vendors say they do not mind going out of their way to lure American tourists to their humble shops, despite their outrage at American policy in the region and its occupation of Iraq.
"Americans are good people who elect evil leaders," says street vendor ‘Abdallah Abu Kishik, reflecting on better days, when hundreds of Americans wandered the streets.
"In the 30 years I’ve been working here, I’ve noticed American people are kind, generous, and peace loving," says Abu Kishik, who is quick to distinguish between the White House and the general public. "Most Americans have no interest or even knowledge of politics. Everyone is welcome in Amman," says the pale-looking man.
Jordan is home to breathtaking attractions such as the rock-engraved city of Petra, recently chosen as the Second Wonder of the World and featured in the Hollywood film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the Dead Sea, and the Baptism site in the Jordan Valley, the lowest point on Earth.
Among Jordan’s other attractions are the petrified mountains of Wadi Rum, Mount Nebo, an array of Roman and Islamic ruins, and the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, with its famous rainbow-coloured reef.
Business has also suffering in the ancient site of the city of Petra, where 17 hotels are on the brink of closing for defaulting on loans.
"American tourists often recount how reluctant they were to come to Jordan and that they are surprised to see how safe and hospitable it is," said Abdullah Helalat, manager of Candles Hotel in Petra.
But hotel owners in Petra also complain that most tourists just visit for a day trip and rarely spend the night in their hotels.
Tourists usually arrive from cruises docking at the Red Sea resort of Aqaba or from the border crossings with Israel.
"Most American tourists who come here do not eat or drink because they either bring their food with them or wait to eat when they get back to their ship," said Salam Hasanat, a Petra tour guide.
In the meantime, some tourists wish to keep a low profile when visiting Jordan, such as U.S. soldiers and contractors working with the army in Iraq.
Several hotels in western Ammanprovide breathing space for thousands of soldiers, after months in war-torn Iraq.
But, these visits are frowned upon in this conservative country, as the soldiers have been associated with excessive alcohol, gambling, and prostitution.
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