AMMAN — Cash-strapped Jordan is hoping that Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the desert kingdom this week as part of a Holy Land tour will be “manna from heaven” to boost tourism.
“Jordan is pinning high hopes that the pope’s visit will attract more tourists and boost religious tourism as he will visit the baptism site and Mount Nebo,” Information Minister Nabil Sharif said.
Jordan is home to the windswept peak of Mount Nebo which overlooks the Dead Sea and the hills of Jerusalem and is where according to biblical tradition God showed Moses the Promised Land.
Jordanians also say their country is home to the site where Jesus Christ was baptised by his cousin John, who was later beheaded by Herod the Great, the king of biblical Judea.
After the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, archaeologists discovered ancient churches and baptismal pools on the east bank of the Jordan River, leading them to conclude they had found the place where Jesus was baptised.
“Ten thousand tourists and pilgrims, especially from Syria and Lebanon, are expected in Jordan during the pope’s visit,” said Refaat Badr, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Jordan.
Six hundred journalists are also expected to flock to Jordan to cover the trip, which begins in Amman on May 8 before the pope travels on May 11 to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The authorities have reinforced security ahead of the visit and have urged pilgrims to come early to papal events for security checks.
Those wishing to attend the mass that the pope will celebrate on Sunday at the Amman International Stadium have been asked to be there six hours ahead of time.
“Sharp object, cell phones, food… will not be allowed into the stadium,” the information minister has said.
Thousands of white T-shirts bearing portraits of the pope and Jordan’s King Abdullah II will be handed out at the stadium along with caps and the iconic Arab keffiyeh head scarf.
In 2008, three million tourists visited the kingdom, generating around three billion dollars for the industry, according to the tourism ministry.
“Hotel occupancy rates in Amman are expected to reach 100 percent during the pope’s pilgrimage,” Tourism Minister Maha Khatib said.
There are 500 hotels with 21,000 rooms in Jordan.
“We want to make the best of the pope’s visit and promote Christian holy sites in Jordan,” Khatib said.
Around 200,000 Christians, half of them Catholic, live among the nearly six million largely Muslim population.
Hotel reservations have dropped by 40 percent in the past five months, according to a hotel manager in Amman.
“I think this was a result of the global economic crisis,” he said. “Today we are finding it difficult to accommodate tourists. The visit is a true manna from heaven.”
Jordan’s postal company said on Wednesday it has issued four stamps “to commemorate the pope’s historic visit to the kingdom.”
Tourism’s contribution to gross domestic product in Jordan is estimated at more than 14 percent, according to official figures.
The government last month predicted its budget deficit will rise to 1.5 billion dollars this year, 50 percent higher than initial forecasts, while foreign debt is running at 6.6 billion dollars.
Unemployment is officially 14.3 percent, with 70 percent of the jobless under the age of 30, according to official figures. Independent estimates put the jobless rate at 25 percent.