Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Does the Lack of Public Transport Benefit the Tourism Industry?

For a country that is relatively economically developed compared to some of its neighbors, Jordan does pretty terribly in one area: the provision of comprehensive and timely public transport.  Some of the country's population centers are served by minibuses, but they are often available during daylight hours and leave only when full.  For tourist destinations not near any towns of significant size, there may or may not be a couple of buses a day at odd hours.  For the traveler with limited funds and time, Jordan might as well be the least convenient location to travel in the general region.

For those with money to spend at least, a network of small independent tour operators and entrepreneurial taxi drivers are trying to fill in the gaps to destinations with little public transport.  Advertising themselves as "giving tour packages," these folks do little beyond transporting passengers from sight to sight, waiting in the cars/buses while the passengers to do their rounds at the sights.  For the supposed "packages" provided, the sights are picked not strictly by their "worthiness," but also convenience for the "tour operator," getting the price with minimum time and effort.

But even for these glorified private transport options, the prices can be steep.  Day trip "packages" cost upwards of 50 USD per person even if the car is full, and more if the trip is more "individualized."  Considering that none of the sights' ticket costs (which are steep by themselves), a day of touring some part of Jordan can easily go up to more than 100 USD.  The fact that the Jordanian Dinar is strong (trading at about 0.7 to 1 USD at the moment), and living expenses high (a bottle of water can cost 1.5 USD at normal shops), the high cost is on one hand comprehensible.

What is less comprehensible is why the government has not stepped in to create more standardized routing systems for the country's bus network, incorporating both population centers and sightseeing hotspots in more frequent regular services.  The country, with its well-maintained networks of nationwide expressways, a highly functional bureaucracy that keep transport nodes (such as Amman's main bus stations and the international airport) in good order, definitely has the organizational capacity to make the better routing happen.

The author's cynical side is gravitating toward thinking that the very lack of more efficient, widely available, cheaper means of transport to tourist sites are a deliberate attempt by vested interests (either small "tour operators" or some elements of the government itself) to ensure tourists pay top dollars to sustain the country's private transport firms.  By giving little to no choice to tourists, the government ensures that the steady influx of foreign tourists are not just benefiting government coffers, restaurants, and the hotelling industry.

As this blog has noted in the past, a location's convenience to short-term visitors are often judged by availability of cheap, frequent options to get from point A to B.  Conversely, to make the visitors expend limited time and money just to get from point A to B may become a key reason to drive away visitors.  The sensitivity to price and timeliness of transport will especially be important as a country like Jordan would want to enlarge the tourism "pie" by capturing more, different types of tourists.  The wealthy package tourists are already here, poor independent travelers need to be acquired.

In their quest to shoestring their way through multiple countries, such cheap independent travelers are likely to stay away from Jordan of today, as the country, to a certain degree, has already acquired a reputation for bad transport links.  Surrounded by countries like Lebanon, Israel, or Egypt where buses and trains are frequent and cheaply available, Jordan may soon see bottlenecks in increased tourist numbers and stagnation in tourism competitiveness.  The short-term benefits to private transport operators is really not worth the future losses.

Yet, Jordan may have time on its side with public transport.  Some tourist sites are organically developing their accompanying population centers (Wadi Musa, next to Petra, being the prime example), and these new towns will gradually get better public transport options (in the form of minibuses serving the local populace).  Compared to other countries, Jordan is just unfortunate that many of its tourist sites are in the "middle of nowhere."  As these tourist sites attract more and more visitors, the situation will naturally change, increasing public transport availability.

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