Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

'1st Time To See It Like This': Petra Tourism Workers Long For Visitors To Return

Tour guide Mohammad Awwad by the Treasury in Petra, Jordan's biggest tourist destination.
Tour guide Mohammad Awwad by the Treasury in Petra, Jordan's biggest tourist destination.

In the ancient city of Petra, Jordan's best-known tourist destination, bird song echoes against the multicolored rock and the elaborate monuments instead of the din of tour groups and souvenir sellers.

The coronavirus pandemic has done what war did not — bring this Middle Eastern country's vital tourism industry to a dramatic halt, and with it, the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of workers.

"This is so strange — it is the first time to see it like this," says tour guide Mohammad Awwad, who had foreign tourists to lead through Petra even with war raging next door in Iraq in 2003. On March 15, Jordan closed archaeological sites and banned visitors from entering the country as it prepared its lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Awadallah Suleiman, a Sudanese migrant worker taking care of an empty souvenir shop on the road from Amman to Petra. The coronavirus pandemic has brought Jordan's vital tourism industry to a dramatic halt, and with it, the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of workers.
/ Moises Saman for NPR
Awadallah Suleiman, a Sudanese migrant worker taking care of an empty souvenir shop on the road from Amman to Petra. The coronavirus pandemic has brought Jordan's vital tourism industry to a dramatic halt, and with it, the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of workers.

Walking through the long, narrow passage between 300-foot-high canyon walls, it's so quiet you can hear the flutter of birds' wings.

At a cafe facing the Treasury, an elaborate colonnaded mausoleum carved into the rose-colored rock where tourists normally pose with camels, hungry cats jump up on empty tables and chairs. A hawk wheels high above the striated rock as the sun comes up behind the mountains. Sparrows hop along the gravel paths usually trod by tourists.

Most souvenir-shop owners have left their wares sitting on tables, as if they meant to come back any minute. Earrings dangle from a plastic stand next to an overturned sign advertising silver and soft drinks. Shelves open to the elements hold hundreds of bottles filled with colored sand artfully arranged in the shapes of camels and mountains.

An amphitheater on the grounds of Petra.
/ Moises Saman for NPR
An amphitheater on the grounds of Petra.

Petra, which 2,000 years ago was on the thriving caravan trade route for frankincense and spices, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It also gained popularity with the 1989 movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with some scenes filmed at the location.

Last year, with an increase in cruise ships going to Jordan, as many as 8,000 people visited Petra some days, which was too many for it to handle, according to Suleiman Farajat, the chief commissioner of tourism and development in Petra.

"How strange is tourism? In one year, you start to have concerns about how to manage so many tourists. And within a couple of months you have zero tours," he says in his office, where huge windows overlook the sprawling ancient city.

Suleiman Farajat, chief commissioner for the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority, at his office overlooking the hills near Petra.
/ Moises Saman for NPR
Suleiman Farajat, chief commissioner for the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority, at his office overlooking the hills near Petra.

More than 1 million people visited Petra last year, 80% of them from foreign countries. Surrounding villages filled with hotels and restaurants depend almost entirely on tourism.

Jordan took no chances with the coronavirus pandemic. After more than a month and a half of strict confinement measures, with 465 known cases and nine COVID-19-related deaths, the country has registered enough days with no new cases that it has reopened shops and allowed driving again. No cases were found in southern Jordan, where Petra is located.

Boys play soccer on a field in the Bedouin village of Um Sayhoun, near Petra.
/ Moises Saman for NPR
Boys play soccer on a field in the Bedouin village of Um Sayhoun, near Petra.

"At a certain stage you don't care about tourism, you care about health," says Farajat.

Bedouin tribes in the region believe they are descendants of the ancient Nabateans. Many belong to the Howeitat confederation of tribes that fought alongside Britain's Lawrence of Arabia during World War I.

In the first century, Petra was a thriving city of 20,000 people. By the time a devastating earthquake hit roughly three centuries later, trade routes had shifted and the city fell into decline. Petra had been forgotten to all but the Bedouins in the city until a Swiss explorer arrived in 1812.

Bedouin village elder Ali Mutlaq Salem sits on his roof in the village of Um Sayhoun, on the outskirts of Petra. Salem was born and raised in one of the caves in Petra.
/ Moises Saman for NPR
Bedouin village elder Ali Mutlaq Salem sits on his roof in the village of Um Sayhoun, on the outskirts of Petra. Salem was born and raised in one of the caves in Petra.

"We are the people who kept Petra secret for 500 years," says Ali Mutlaq Salem, 61, who was born and raised in one of the caves in Petra. The government relocated his and hundreds of other families to a new village in the 1980s.

From his rooftop in the village of Um Sayhoun in a house he built over the years with money from his souvenir shop, he points out the mountain in Petra where Aaron, the brother of the Prophet Moses, is believed to have been buried.

Salem's eldest son, Rizeq Ali, has an accounting degree, but normally makes a living taking tourists on mountain and desert trips. Seven years ago, when then-President Barack Obama visited Petra, Ali served him lunch.

"When he came I prepared a sand bottle with his name and his wife's name Michelle and he was really very nice," he says. They took a photo together and Ali says he told the president to come next time without all the security. "He was laughing," he says.

"The tourist business is really great," Ali says, but he says it has become too precarious: "The problem is when you have any problem around the world. Not in Jordan, around the world."

Portraits of Jordan's royal family adorn an empty guard post inside Petra. The site is now watched over by drones.
/ Moises Saman for NPR
Portraits of Jordan's royal family adorn an empty guard post inside Petra. The site is now watched over by drones.

Ali, 31, thinks maybe he'll try to find work in a bank.

A few miles away in a field with goats and chickens, Ali's cousin, Suleiman Mohammad, sits with his wife in a black goat-hair tent with no running water and no electricity. He has rigged up a car battery to power a light and charge his cellphone.

Mohammad was self-employed, making a living leading tourists through Petra on donkeys. With the collapse of the tourism industry he could no longer pay the $200-a-month rent for the house they lived in.

"We were renting house in a Bedouin village," he says as his wife, Azziza Ali, builds a fire with sticks to make tea. "The first month, [the owner] said, 'I don't want any money from you.' " Mohammad says it would have been shameful to stay a second month without paying rent, so they left.

Suleiman Mohammad and his wife, Azziza Ali, live in a tent after they were unable to pay the rent on their home since the lockdown affected their work in the tourism industry.
/ Moises Saman for NPR
Suleiman Mohammad and his wife, Azziza Ali, live in a tent after they were unable to pay the rent on their home since the lockdown affected their work in the tourism industry.

He couldn't afford feed for his three donkeys, so he has put them out to pasture. The only income they have now is from selling eggs. To feed the chickens, he grinds corn with a circular rock moving around a metal peg.

A few nights ago, he says, a wolf came and carried away one of the goats.

Azziza Ali sits near the chickens, a large tan hat shading her pale skin from the sun.

"Of course living in the village was better, but circumstances changed," she says. "You have to pay rent there, you have to pay electricity and water and there was no way. God willing, if the coronavirus is gone and things get better, we will go back to the village and rent a house again."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ali Mutlaq Salem's grandchildren, Rizeq Ali's children, in the village of Um Sayhoun, on the outskirts of Petra. Most villagers here make a living from the tourism industry and are now out of work due to the lockdown measures that have effectively stopped tourism in Jordan and across most the world.
/ Moises Saman for NPR
Ali Mutlaq Salem's grandchildren, Rizeq Ali's children, in the village of Um Sayhoun, on the outskirts of Petra. Most villagers here make a living from the tourism industry and are now out of work due to the lockdown measures that have effectively stopped tourism in Jordan and across most the world.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.