Premium-priced Petra

It’s been a(nother) phenomenally busy time. After a string of writing deadlines, which filled the Christmas/New Year break, I’ve just got back from ten days in Lebanon and Jordan to discover that work lined up for Jan and Feb which would have paid almost £3,500 has fallen through – and then today I’ve also had to turn down offers of more work from two major publishers totalling around £15,000, simply because of lack of time this year (several prior commitments)… So you’ll excuse me if I’m not in the best of moods right now.

The Treasury, Petra

While I was in Jordan last week, I made an incognito visit to Petra. This has always been by far the priciest of Jordan’s tourist attractions: where most other sites cost a few dinars to get in, Petra cost 21 JD (£18/$30) for a one-day ticket, 26 JD (£23/$37) for two days, 31 JD (£27/$44) for three or more days. That’s only for ‘foreigners’: Jordanians, expat residents and Arab nationals pay 1 JD a day. Debating the rights and wrongs of that is for another time and place.

Some people, of course, like to take a guide – you could drop into the Visitor Centre at the entrance gate and book a guide on the spot: 20 JD for a straightforward trot through the main sights of Petra (2.5 hours) or 50 JD for a full-day tour.

As you walk into the site, there are also local people offering horses to ride. In the old days you could ride a horse all the way through the Siq canyon into the heart of the ancient city – that was great, a really exciting, memorable experience. But it also, of course, degrades the site’s terrain to have hundreds of people galloping horses around every day, and so, back in the 90s, it was decreed that tourists could only ride horses for the 700m or so from the ticket gate down to the Siq entrance, where everybody had to dismount. If you still wanted to do this short ride, the fee was fixed recently at 7 JD – but then you had to run the gauntlet of the handlers (who were hardly ever the horse-owners) trying to wheedle extra tips out of you.

Astronomic price rises

Now USAID has been brought in as consultants to reorganize how tourists experience Petra. What I discovered last week amounts not only to astronomic price rises, but a shockingly corrupt system of backhanders being written into law.

As of 1st January this year, the Petra authorities are forcing everybody who enters Petra to pay a compulsory surcharge covering the cost of a guide and a horse-ride, regardless of whether they use those services or not.

In addition they are splitting tourist visitors into two classes. Regular tourists – defined as those who stay overnight in Jordan – now pay 33 JD (£29/$47) admission for one day, JD38 (£33/$54) for two days, JD43 (£37/$61) for three or more days.

From 1st November 2010 those prices rise again, to JD50 (£43/$71), JD55 (£48/$78) and JD60 (£52/$85). That’s a heck of a lot of money: a family of four wanting to visit Petra for a couple of days now faces a bill of almost £200 for the entry ticket alone.

“Day Visitors” (presumably defined as those tourists who do not stay overnight in Jordan) are hit even harder. They must pay JD40 (£35/$56) until end-Feb, JD60 (£52/$85) from March till October, and then from November onwards a staggering JD90 (£78/$127) per person simply to get a one-day ticket to enter Petra. A family of four who have booked a holiday in Egypt and who choose to make a daytrip to Petra now face a staggering £312 fee simply to get into the ancient site.

The authorities have clearly decided that people who want to see Petra will be willing to pay any price to do so. That’s quite a gamble.

And how are the staff at the Petra ticket desk going to differentiate between a “Day Visitor” and someone who has a hotel booked (in Amman, say) for that night?

More to the point, why should I be forced to subsidise the horse-owners and tour-guides of Petra when I do not wish to avail myself of their services?

This is a country whose average salary is under $7000 a year and which is – let’s face it – only very modestly equipped in terms of tourist infrastructure, though it makes great play of its hospitable welcome to visitors. With these changes Jordan is now, quite overtly, setting out to screw as much money out of its tourists – instead of, for instance, concentrating on developing a decent range of attractions and fostering local private-sector investment in tourism to offer a broader, more mature national product.

Petra needs an overhaul, sure. Daytrippers who visit Petra from Egypt or Israel, then go back across the border the same day, spending virtually nothing in Jordan, are a problem. But will punitive entry prices solve it? Why not make Jordan more attractive, to entice people to stay longer?

Proposals for more toilets on-site, better interpretation and new transport services in & out are welcome. But why such a massive price-hike to fund them? Petra had more than 800,000 visitors in 2008, who brought more than $21 million in ticket receipts for this one site, in one year alone, in a developing-world country. $21m buys a lot of portaloos. Where has that money gone?

The worst is that the authorities have decided to line the pockets of Petra’s horse-owners with gold. These people – and the handlers who hold the reins – provide a dreadful introduction to Petra. The horses are hardly prime physical specimens. The stables beside the path stink. As of last week the handlers were still demanding “tips” from tourists, despite now being paid directly from ticket receipts.

Petra – though the most impressive ancient site in Jordan – is my least favourite Jordanian experience. It’s a hustle, and it just got worse.