Travel and tourism play a vitally important role in Jordan’s economy, contributing almost 20 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2019, some $8.8 billion, and employing over 50,000 people. According to official figures, the total number of tourists visiting Jordan in 2019 was 5.36 million. But like every other tourist destination, Jordan has been badly hit by the COVID pandemic. The countrywide lockdown in mid-March came during the peak of the tourist season, and, according to the Central Bank of Jordan, revenues in the sector fell by 56.5 per cent in March 2020 alone.
However, efforts are already well underway to rebuild Jordan’s tourism industry as reflected in the fact that the country has already received a “Safe Travels” stamp from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) in recognition of the safety measures the government and its partners have implemented. This scheme enables travellers to recognise those governments and companies around the world that have adopted global standardised health and hygiene protocols.
In another key initiative designed to help the tourism sector get back on its feet, more than 20,000 people are to benefit from additional training provided under a programme launched by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MOTA) and the Sector Skills Council for Hospitality and Tourism (SSC).
The aim of the programme is to deliver online training addressing the key steps the sector needs to take to ensure the safety of guests and staff as the country reactivates its economy. This builds upon the pre-pandemic investment in training and development that the sector was making to counteract a shortage of well-trained and motivated staff. A lack of alignment between training standards and the needs of employers had also created a substantial mismatch across both technical and soft skills, a mismatch that had been exacerbated by the fact that jobs in tourism are still regarded as non-aspirational for many Jordanians, particularly young women.
An additional challenge is that Jordan is characterised by large youth inclusion gaps in terms of employment opportunities. Youth unemployment and NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) rates in Jordan have risen to 33.6 per cent and 25 per cent respectively, amongst the highest in the southern and eastern Mediterranean region. The situation is particularly acute for graduates, over 75 per cent of whom are unable to find employment within a year of completing their studies. Average graduate unemployment almost reached 25 per cent in 2019, while the figure among female graduates stood at 78 per cent.
For countries like Jordan across the Middle East, the post-COVID re-set offers a significant opportunity to ensure that employees are both well equipped and prepared to respond to the changing behaviour of tourists and customers. It is also an opportunity to build a more inclusive, sustainable and resilient tourist sector and workforce, and to develop products and solutions for new social and cultural experiences and initiative collaborations with the creative and cultural industries. The region will also see new trends in tourism, accelerated by a greater need for social contact and a more profound interest in cultural heritage.
One project that aims to stimulate tourism and diversify tour offerings in Jordan has recently been launched by the Dutch embassy in Jordan and Leaders International, a Brussels-based international development network. The three-year initiative, “Curated Experiences: Developing innovative and diversified touristic products across Jordan”, will focus on diversifying the country’s tourism offerings by developing innovative experiences such as star gazing, nature trails, yoga and meditation, adapting to new travel trends and strengthening the resilience of the sector as a whole. This highlights the importance of investing in continuously innovating the customer experience and points to a future where travel experiences will be more likely to include things such as festivals, music events, wellbeing and even medical tourism.
Research last year with NTG (Next Tourism Generation Alliance), highlighted some similar trends and revealed the importance that employers in Europe’s tourism sector are placing on being able to meet the growing demand for more skilled staff — with digital, green and social skills becoming top priorities. It is also clear that a key component of the global post-COVID re-set will be greater corporate social responsibility, which in turn means that tourism will need to demonstrate a greater commitment to environmental sustainability.
Marketing, raising awareness and acting quickly to restore confidence and stimulate demand are essential to rebuilding the tourism industry and reinforcing governance at all levels to give protection to investment from government, business leaders and our tourists of the future.
Timing is also critical for the move from the “resist and absorb” stage to a post-COVID “recover and transform” phase. Businesses that are responsive to change with ambitiously minded, responsible leaders will be those that flourish. Furthermore, the collaborative approach to supporting the tourist sector in Jordan highlights the important role that partnerships between governments, donors and specialist industry and skills bodies have to play in preparing for a post-COVID future.