Mass Tourism in Petra - the Sad and Ugly Truth

I wish I didn’t have to write this. Really. Because like every travel addict, I feel a great thrill when I visit a place of incredible natural beauty, and I cannot deny that what I saw and experienced in Petra left me breathless. The hues of pink, orange and red at different hours of the day, the imposing rock facades, the stillness of the desert, the astonishing views from way up high…all that was remarkable and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But it came at a price - and I’m not just talking about the cost of my trip!

The sad fact is that Petra, which is one of the great natural wonders of the world, is being turned into a huge money-making exercise for the Jordanian government, and the consequences are far-reaching. Let’s start with the price of entry - a one-day ticket costs 50 Jordanian dinar. That’s $70 US dollars and, for what it’s worth, you can’t use this ticket to return at night, on the evenings where the Treasury is lit up with candles (that involves purchasing another ticket). As far as I know, this makes it the most costly attraction in the world to date. Throw in the cost of a visa (which the Jordanian government put up, a few years ago), overpriced restaurants and bottles of water being sold for 5 JD ($6 a bottle!) and you’re looking at a very expensive trip.

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Wadi Musa is, of course, in the desert, which means that provisions have to be driven in from Aqaba or Amman but, nevertheless, dining out in a restaurant (I ate in 3 different restaurants, each night, and the food was pretty mediocre) is very costly (and I mean I paid more for a plate of rice and vegetables than I would have in London or New York). Restaurants also refuse to provide diners with tap water - you are forced to buy bottled water or soda. Even more annoying, supermarkets in town are few and far between which makes it very hard to buy food for a packed lunch for the following day.

But it’s not just the cost of this trip that distressed me - because travelling to many parts of the world can be costly. It’s the sheer disregard for the site itself - and what hoards of tourists traipsing through each morning are doing to it. A local guide told me that since cruise ships from Aqaba started bringing groups on day-trips, the situation has reached breaking point. Petra is now dealing with between 3.000-4,000 visitors a day, and whilst that gives a much-needed boost to the local economy, it’s causing immense damage to the flora, fauna and rocks faces. Put simply, he told me, the ecological consequences are going to be severe…and it’s only a matter of a couple more years before the ‘point of no return’ is reached.

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The other thing that struck me was just how many times I was pestered, and outright harassed, by unauthorised locals, trying to sell me a headscarf, a donkey ride, or a guided tour. Children as young as 5 and 6 were clustered around me the entire hour I was strolling from the Siq to the Treasury, trying to sell me postcards. One man walked beside me for more than 5 minutes, valiantly trying to persuade me to climb the ‘Indiana Jones’ trail with him. (Alone! Women beware!) At the Treasury itself, I ended up in an unpleasant altercation after some local men tried to strong-arm me and another woman into being guided up a tiny rock path. Aside from the fact that they were extremely aggressive in asking for a ‘donation’, I subsequently found out that this trail should be shut off to the public, since it is dangerous to climb there (no proper path, and no doctor to hand should you fall). When I and a Swiss woman refused to pay them, abuse was hurled at us and one of the ringleaders tried to threaten us physically. (Here’s the ringleader of the group, whom I nicknamed ‘The Pirate’). The young boy beside him should be in school - instead, he’s learning how to bully and coerce!)

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On my second day, when once more I saw this group of men harassing other visitors, I made a complaint to the tourist police, who were standing just a few hundred metres away, casually smoking and blatantly ignoring the entire situation. Nothing was done…it was patently obvious that the authorities couldn’t care less. Back at the entrance, that afternoon, I made an official complaint at the police station, complete with a four-page detailed written statement. The chief of police admitted that these men should be there and said “Action will be taken.” Three months later, I have heard nothing from the Jordanian authorities in response to my long letter.

The sad truth is that money is poisoning Petra. Everyone is out to make a buck, and officials choose to look the other way (particularly the police, who speak no English, French, Spanish or German) and, for all I know, might be in on these scams. Across the entire site (i.e. far away from the main drag) you are followed by Bedouins, bombarding you with offers of trips, goods and advice. In the 45 minutes that it took me to walk along one particularly path, I was bothered no fewer than 28 times. (Yes, I counted).

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I have climbed pyramids in Mexico, visited the largest monument to Buddha in the world, in Indonesia, trekked the Grand Canyon in Arizona, toured the Colosseum in Rome and a few other places besides….and never have I felt this uncomfortable. A wonderful professional guide I met on my last day, who refused to give me his name for fear of personal reprisals, told me that two years ago a group of licensed guides complained about the situation, and the way it reflected on them as Jordanians. Three of them, he told me, were beaten up by the men at the Treasury (the same ones who harassed me). Two of them required hospital treatment. The police did not, at any point, intervene.

Who is to blame? Unscrupulous locals, for sure, and the police, no doubt. But, for me, the buck stops with the Jordanian government, for whom Petra is not just the jewel in their crown, but a goose that’s continually laying golden eggs. Obsessed with the idea of making a quick buck, they care not for the ecological consequences of mass tourism, or the impression that tourists are left with, after spending time in Jordan. A few years back, Wadi Musa was just a tiny village, and it was possible to wander off the main paths in Petra and not see a soul for an hour or two. Now there’s a Movenpick hotel in town and wifi hotspots along the main paths. And as long as the Jordanian government is mesmorised by the wads of cash that day-trippers keep handing over, things can only get worse.

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Petra - I loved you, but I won’t return!