Camels laze in the shade of 2,300-year old columns. Centre stage at the amphitheatre is temporarily reserved for goats. The noise of crowds in front of the treasury – the most recognisable and best preserved feature of the ancient city of Petra – has evaporated, and only birdsong intrudes on the silence.
This is peak season of what was supposed to be a record year for tourism in Jordan’s crown jewel, the Nabataean metropolis carved into kaleidoscopic rock. But the last tourists left the Middle Eastern kingdom on 17 March, just before it shut its borders because of coronavirus, and since then Petra and the surrounding towns have been deserted.
“We just had our best year since the Arab spring, which affected us really badly,” says Jihad Kaldany, a guide who specialises in taking Christian tourists through the country’s Old Testament sites. Those visitors tended to be older people, the demographic most at risk of the virus. “If we knew it would be better in, say, two years, we could plan. But there is no assurance. Nobody knows.”
The site in southern Jordan is one of the centres of an unprecedented crisis for the global tourism industry, with 120 million livelihoods under threat and no end in sight.
But the empty streets, hotel rooms and restaurants in Wadi Musa, the town that serves as gateway to Petra, also illustrate the dire challenge facing middle and lower-income countries over the next years. Most, like Jordan, have so far avoided the worst of the virus. They will not be spared the economic blow, with countries that were banking on tourism and hospitality to be major engines of their growth projected to suffer most, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Surviving for long stretches without rainfall was the test of Petra’s original inhabitants. How to survive a year without tourists is the challenge facing its modern ones.
“In a community like Wadi Musa, up to 80% of people rely on tourism as their source of income,” says Suleiman Farajat, the chief commissioner of the Petra tourism authority. Across Jordan, tourism contributes about 15% of the country’s GDP and sustains an estimated 55,000 jobs.
Petra welcomed more than 1 million foreigners last year, a milestone that was fuelling a construction blitz in Wadi Musa. Suleiman Hasanaat was preparing to open a new hotel in late March. “As soon as they stopped the flights, all reservations were cancelled,” he says.
The cost of the global lockdown is spreading through the town. “If you run a hotel, you buy vegetables and fruit from the markets,” Hasanaat says. “You employ people include maintenance and taxi drivers. The people with donkeys and horses. Those running small stores that depend on walk-in tourists. Even the people in the Turkish baths in the city. In every single family in Petra, there is somebody affected by this.”
Just as for the hundreds of years before the site was “rediscovered” by a Swiss explorer in 1812, Bedouin people are the only sign of life inside the sandstone city. “We’re tired of doing nothing,” says Umar Ayyad, 36, riding a donkey in the midday glare.
He says he used to earn about 30 dinars (£34) every day selling rides to tourists, enough to support his six children. He’s survived so far on small grants from the government, remittances from his brother in Europe, and by selling his 17 sheep to settle debts. But he needs to pay down his balance at a local market by the end of the month to keep buying groceries, and money is already running short. “If the situation continues like this, it’s a problem,” he says.
Governments in developed countries are scrambling to weave again the safety nets some have spent the past four decades unpicking. The welfare system in Jordan is relatively advanced compared with many of its neighbours, but still has huge gaps.
Fewer than half of Jordanian workers are registered with the country’s social security system, which is already rationing its welfare payments. Without external aid, the fund could run dry within months.
The rest of the country’s workforce, including tens of thousands of migrant workers, have no safety net at all, and are totally exposed to the vagaries and predations of the market.
“This is the everything we’ve made in the past two months,” Muadth gestures at the handful of bills in the cash register, at a convenience store a few metres from Petra’s gates.
The Yemeni, in sandals and a corduroy suit jacket, arrived in the tourist hub a year ago. Even in bad months, he says, he could send about 200 dinars home to his family in Sana’a. “Now, nothing,” he says. “My younger brother sells water and the family lives off that.”
His debts include to a pastry shop owner who sponsored his working visa a year ago. The pair had a falling out, and the man refuses to give back his passport unless Muadth can pay him for the cost of his working permit, he says. “I called him yesterday and said, listen, I’m not earning any money. He told me: deal with it. Sort something out.”
The Jordanian government is trying to cushion the impact on the tourist industry by waiving some fees, postponing utility bills and offering loans to hotel owners and other stakeholders. Those measures might work in situations where tourist numbers have simply fallen, says Hasanaat, but when they are zero for months on end, more is needed.
“We are indebted to our government for the lockdown,” he says. “They controlled [the virus]. We are in secure hands. But as soon as Jordan becomes a corona-free country, we will look around and see most industries are okay – but not tourism. Petra will die without direct support or loan packages.”
To entice people back, tourism authorities are developing plans to market Petra as a safe destination in a post-Covid world. “We rely on outdoor tourism, which means that people are not stuck in closed areas,” Farajat says. “We will regulate the flow of tourists so that no large numbers are in close proximity.”
He expects a few thousand foreigners to return this year, perhaps followed by a few hundred thousand next year. It will take several years, in the best case, to return to the heights of 2019, he says.
A few days after Jordan closed its borders, Hasanaat went to Petra alone. “I just wanted to see it,” he said. “I just had this feeling – that I wanted to see it without tourists.”
It was still dark as he strolled through the city, and he watched the sun come up in front of the treasury’s towering facade. “I stayed in front of it for two or three hours,” he said. “It was a very sad feeling, walking alone. I’m used to seeing it with crowds. Now it’s full of ghosts.”