Archaeologists call for urgent action to protect Petra

(MENAFN – Jordan Times) AMMAN — As Jordan basks in Petra’s glory in becoming one of the world’s new seven wonders, leading experts are warning that urgent action is needed to preserve the ancient site against the expected influx of tourists.

According to some of the country’s foremost scholars in Nabataean studies, Petra currently faces an array of challenges, ranging from a lack of basic infrastructure and tourism facilities to the growing black market trade in stolen artifacts which are sold openly on the city’s streets. "We welcome Petra’s nomination but the real question is: What next? If we are expecting a big increase in visitors then we need to provide adequate services and take measures to safeguard the site," said Khairieh Amr, deputy director for technical affairs at the Jordan Museum.

The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities on Monday said it expected annual tourist numbers to double as a result of Petra’s nomination as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, which was announced in the early hours of Sunday in Lisbon, Portugal. Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, already attracts around 400,000 visitors per year, making it the jewel of the country’s tourism industry.

But despite increasing tourism and growing international attention, experts say little has been done to improve the site’s facilities, provide better information to visitors, or preserve its historical monuments.

"We have a situation where a lack of proper regulations and the absence of clearly defined tourist tracks are causing damage to the site. This will only get worse as visitor numbers increase," said Amr, considered one of the world’s foremost experts in Nabataean studies.

Specialists such as Amr and Professor Ziad Salamin, the director of the Centre for Nabataean Studies at Al Hussein Ben Talal University in Wadi Musa, stress they are not against more tourists and are aware of the site’s contribution to the country’s economy. But what they do want, they say, is for the government to outline a clear strategy for Petra’s future development, one that brings together all concerned parties.

Among new measures they would like to see introduced are: clearly defined pathways, better signposting and information boards, adequate car parking facilities, the opening of a new exit to relieve pressure on the Siq, better trained tour guides and more security to prevent the increasing problem of illegal digging. They also say more attention should be given to the surrounding area, which is rich in archaeological treasures stretching back over 10,000 years from the Epipaleolithic time through to the Islamic period.

"The problem is that the ministry does not coordinate with us or even within its various departments. The end result of this is a lack of facilities, tour brochures that contain factual errors, and guides who are not even aware that over the past year there have been ten new excavation digs," said Salamin, who has lived and studied in the area all his life.

No government officials were available to comment. In a press conference on Monday, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Osama Dabbas said a strategy to address these problems had been in place for several months and would result in "a new edge to the visitor experience". He gave no further details.

Salamin said yesterday his university knew nothing of the plan. "We have seen a lot of projects on paper and heard much talk but what we haven’t seen is practical steps on the ground," he said.

"They even held celebrations to mark Petra’s nomination and didn’t bother to inform us. We urgently need to strengthen ties and unify our efforts following Petra’s victory in order to meet future challenges," he added.

University of Jordan Archaeology Professor Safwan Tel, who headed the ministry’s Department of Antiquities from 1990-1994, said the reason for so little progress in upgrading the site was a lack of coordination between his old department and the ministry itself, which he said had the last word on all matters.

"I know from my own experience about the absence of effective cooperation. I believe if we are to make any progress the department should be given some form of autonomy… This is a big moment for us to act, but unfortunately so far the government has not taken things seriously," he said.

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