Malia AsfourDirector, North America Jordan Tourism Board
Jordan’s tourism population is heavily influenced by health and safety concerns among travelers due to its location within the Middle East. Malia Asfour, Director of the Jordan Tourism Board for North America, explains that because misperceptions have such a high impact on tourism for the country, the tourism board has been working hard to create a brand around Jordan as a standalone destination.
Incidents of violence and disease outbreak—such as SARS, swine flu, MRSA, etc.—have caused tourism around the world to suffer over the years. When the swine flu first appeared, Mexico was affected by a decline in tourism. Likewise, when SARS appeared, Canada was affected by a decline in tourism, and the same thing happened in Southeast Asia when the avian flu surfaced.
As for Jordan, Asfour says that the sensationalism in the media and how that psychologically contributes to the fear factor in travelers has been a big reason why people have chosen not to travel to Jordan and the region. The media plays a large role in decision-making for travelers.
“Concerns about disease or violence certainly play a role in influencing travel decisions, but for Jordan, the media hype combined with a lack of understanding ad misperceptions are the biggest factors behind why people choose not to visit,” she says. “With tensions rising in the region, the lack of understanding that there are still places that are not touched by the violence that is going on in Syria and the Gaza Strip cause Jordan to often be a victim of misperception. The same was true in Mexico. People were concerned about the drug cartels throughout the country when, in fact, only one area in the northern part of Mexico was involved, so there is definitely misunderstanding due to how the media projects things.”
This type of misunderstanding has affected Jordan multiple times, particularly during the Arab Spring and the Infitada in the West Bank. Both instances caused tourism to drop drastically because the country was automatically associated with these incidents, even though Jordan was not involved.
When it comes to trusted sources of information, Asfour says that more sophisticated travelers are less influenced by the media and are beginning to look to sources like TripAdvisor to get the real story about what is going on and whether or not a specific destination is safe to visit.
“When the Arab Spring and Infitada took place, we realized that we had to build a brand around Jordan that distinguished it from the rest of the region,” she says. “We have also realized the importance of having a strong reputation and PR skills with the media because that is where you can battle misperceptions. If you consider Mexico, the strategy that they undertook was amazing, and their taxicab campaign was one of the best I’ve ever seen. They really worked with the media to change people’s perceptions and highlight destinations that were not influenced by the problems that were taking place in other parts of the country."
Asfour also says that aligning a country with an influential brand can go a long way in building a country’s reputation among consumers.
“We’ve done a lot of work with some outdoor companies like Columbia Sportswear because they are a good fit for us in the adventure market,” she says. “When you can associate your country with a brand like that, it can really help influence travelers to come to your destination.”
Malia Asfour, Director of the Jordan Tourism Board in North America (JTBNA), began handling tourism for the Jordanian government in the U.S. as tourism attaché in Washington in 1995. She was a key participant in creating the country’s first tourism office in North America, which was launched in 1997. Asfour moved to the U.S. in 1990 and handled the press for the Jordan Information Bureau during the Middle East peace process. She currently serves on the board of directors of the National Tourism Association Services, Inc. (NTASI), is a member of the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s (ATTA) Advisory Board, and also serves on the US Tour Operator Association’s Allied & Associate Committee (USTOA); the National Tourism Association’s Faith Tourism Advisory Council (NTA); and Tourism Cares Global Outreach Committee. She also served on the board of directors of the American Tourism Society (ATS).
Asfour graduated with her bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University and her master’s degree in international marketing from the University of Maryland. In 2002, Travel Agent Magazine nominated her as one of the most powerful women in travel.