easyJet opens up Jordan

After last week’s news about the swingeing increases in Jordan’s visa fees for independent travellers comes the startling announcement that easyJet – Europe’s second-largest low-cost airline – is launching flights to Jordan, starting on 27 March 2011.

easyJet is intending to operate three flights a week from London Gatwick to Amman’s Queen Alia airport, with an unbelievably low lead-in price of £106 return (US$168; JD118). That price is likely to apply to very few flights – but even if a more usual fare turns out to be double (or even triple) that figure, it will still represent by far the cheapest way to get to Jordan.

It’s hard to overestimate the potential impact. It is, in short, the biggest shot-in-the-arm for Jordanian tourism from the UK (and, arguably, for Jordanian tourism in general) since, well, ever.

For years, Jordan has suffered from poor access and high fares. Two airlines fly direct between London and Amman – BMI and Royal Jordanian. Both operate out of Britain’s least favourite airport, London Heathrow, and it’s difficult to find fares on either of less than about £450 return. From London it’s often considerably more expensive to fly to Amman (3600km) than to Muscat (5800km).

Is that through lack of demand, or lack of opportunity? Well, we’re about to find out. I’m afraid easyJet’s arrival will be a kick in the pants for both RJ and BMI.

But this doesn’t only put the cat among the pigeons as far as the airlines go. Can Jordan itself actually cope with increased numbers of British travellers on short breaks and sun-seeking holidays?

Jordan’s high visa fees, and absurdly high entry prices at Petra, will put some off.

The over-concentration of five-star hotels in Amman, Aqaba and the Dead Sea – and the lack of high-quality three- and four-star midrange properties around the country – will be shown to be a mistake.

Jordan’s focus on pouring resources into developing package tourism, to the detriment of the independent travel sector, will be exposed as short-sighted.

And cultural issues, as Brits arrive expecting Amman to be like Sharm el-Sheikh or Aqaba to be like Hurghada, may be thrown into sharp focus. Ryanair’s cheap flights to the ancient Moroccan city of Fez have been a stop-start affair, not wholly welcomed on all sides.

On the plus side – well, it hardly needs saying. This puts Jordan into the ‘A’ league of European destinations. The increased exposure, simply through being on easyJet’s route listing, is invaluable. It opens up a whole new market for Jordan, price-sensitive but potentially high-spending independent visitors, who have previously been overlooked. Tourism accounts for roughly 20% of Jordan’s GDP (the country’s second-highest earner) and employs roughly 40,000 people, thereby supporting perhaps as many as a quarter of a million Jordanians, out of a total population around 6 million. It’s not an exaggeration to say that easyJet’s arrival could signal a rise in Jordan’s standard of living.

But perhaps the most important aspect of easyJet’s announcement is the vote of confidence it represents in promoting Jordan as a safe, decent, worthwhile place to go on holiday, regardless of whatever might be going on across the border in neighbouring countries. For years now, the negative impressions garnered from the news media, and allied concerns about personal safety, have been the single hardest barrier for Jordanian tourism marketeers to surmount. Amman’s appearance in easyJet’s big, bright, friendly, orange ads, alongside Corfu, Tenerife and Majorca, is the kind of PR money simply cannot buy.

Incidentally, this is also the first British low-cost routing to an Arab capital city. I don’t want to get too dewy-eyed about it, but there’s an undeniable element of bridging a certain awareness gap there. More Westerners experiencing Arab and Muslim society first-hand, from the inside, can only be a good thing.

I sincerely hope the Jordanian tourism industry – and Jordanian society – can flex with what is a seismic shift. Heaven knows Jordan needs easyJet; but, in truth, does easyJet need Jordan? I really hope that, by the end of 2011, it will be obvious they do.