'1st Time To See It Like This': Petra Tourism Workers Long For Visitors To Return The coronavirus pandemic has done what even war did not — bring Jordan's vital travel industry to a halt, and with it, the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of workers.

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/850157824/851849851" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One of the most eerie experiences in this coronavirus pandemic has been looking at images of empty tourist hot spots around the world. There's Times Square. The Eiffel Tower also comes to mind. And also on that list is Jordan's ancient city of Petra, which is carved into sandstone cliffs in the desert. NPR's Jane Arraf traveled there.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: At our first stop on the bank of the Jordan River, believed to be where Jesus was baptized, workers disinfect a marble baptismal font. The site has already been shut down and sterilized since the pandemic emerged. The font for baptizing infants is getting an extra dose of bleach while visitors are gone. Along the gravel trail, the site's director, Rustom Mkhjian, points out that it's so quiet you can actually hear the wind rustling in the reeds.

RUSTOM MKHJIAN: The reeds that Jesus baptized being shaken by the wind like Jesus put it. This is it. This is having a site the way John and Jesus saw it to experience the grace of the site.

ARRAF: Before the pandemic, this had started off as a really good year for tourism in Jordan. Almost 25,000 people visited the site in January alone, 20% more than a year ago. When tourism does start again, it will focus first on Jordanian visitors. A few miles down the road, literally down to the lowest point on Earth, empty hotels and halted construction sites are strung along the shores of the Dead Sea. This would normally be high season for the glittering Kempinski Ishtar Hotel, where rooms start at $500 a night.

CORNELIA ZSCHUNKE: April would be a lots of weddings, events every Thursday, Friday, Saturday.

ARRAF: That's assistant manager Cornelia Zschunke. Instead of the usual 500 employees, it's just her and a few ground staff here. In the main hallway, the grand piano and the furniture are covered with white sheets. The most recent guests arrived on some of the last flights into Jordan and were quarantined here at government expense for two weeks. That would normally seem like a luxury except...

ZSCHUNKE: They cannot leave their rooms and the ACs are off. So, yeah, it's more difficult.

ARRAF: So there would be, like, 90 degrees in the rooms.

ZSCHUNKE: Mmm hmm.

ARRAF: That's pretty wild.

ZSCHUNKE: And the pools are closed, so it's basically you can only be in your room. You cannot go anywhere.

ARRAF: The hotel donated the cost of the quarantine back to the government.

SULEIMAN FARAJAT: This is the visitor's center. This is the entrance of the site.

ARRAF: Three hours south, Suleiman Farajat looks out the window of his office at Jordan's crown jewel of tourism - the ancient site of Petra, a city carved into multicolored rock more than 2,000 years ago. The director of the commission overseeing Petra, Farajat, says with an increase in cruise ships visiting Jordan, visitors have reached as high as 8,000 people a day. So many in the world heritage site, they had discussed before the pandemic how to limit the numbers.

FARAJAT: How strange is tourism. In one year, you start to make concerns about how to manage the so many tourists, and within a couple of months, you have zero tourists.

ARRAF: When we get to the site, the long rose-colored canyon leading to the start of the excavated city is full of birds again. More than a thousand people normally work at Petra. They're all gone. Our guide, Mohammad Awwad, says even in war time, it wasn't like this.

MOHAMMAD AWWAD: So much strange. You know, it's my first time to see it like this. It does not happen before. Even during the time of war, I did not see it empty like this.

ARRAF: The dogs and cats, normally fed by tourists and shop owners, mill around hungry. The din of tour groups and souvenir sales people, of camels and donkeys is gone. The multicolored rock that looks like melting ice cream echoes instead with the sound of birds. Abandon cafes overlook empty tables and chairs.

I'm standing in front of one of those little shops that sells bottles filled with different colors of the sand that you find here. And they pour it into the bottles so it looks like parts of Petra and camels and mountains. They've just left everything out. On another stand, there's silver earrings hanging from a stand. It's almost as if the world has disappeared.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Shouting in non-English language).

ARRAF: The people who live and work here are Bedouins, many from the Howeitat tribes who fought with Lawrence of Arabia. Ali Mutlaq Salem was born in one of the caves in Petra. In the nearby village that families were relocated to, you can see the ancient city from his rooftop.

ALI MUTLAQ SALEM: This is Petra. This is the center of Petra.

ARRAF: Salem built this house with money from tourism. But his son Rizeq says tourism has become too volatile.

RIZEQ ALI: Tourist business is really great. But the problem when we have any problem around the world, it's not in Jordan - around the world.

ARRAF: Rizeq, who's 31, thinks maybe he'll try to find work in a bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOATS BLEATING)

ARRAF: A few miles away in a field with goats and chickens, we meet his cousin and see the real cost of the collapse in tourism. Suleiman Mohammad made his living by taking tourists around on donkeys. He and his wife are sitting in a goat-hair tent with no running water and no electricity. They couldn't afford the rent on their house anymore.

SULEIMAN MOHAMMAD: And I was renting house in Bedouin village. But the first month, the guy, he say, OK, I don't want money from you. But the second month, he says, you know, and they cannot stay more than this time there because it's for shame, you know, to press the people like this. And I decide to come here.

ARRAF: The only income he has now is from selling eggs.

AZZIZA ALI: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: His wife, Azziza Ali, says they're waiting for the crisis to end, for tourists to come back, for a chance to live in a house again and to see what the post-pandemic era will bring. Jane Arraf, NPR News, near Petra, Jordan.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.