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Jordan visa changes – update

6 May 2015

A brief update to my post yesterday on Jordan’s visa changes.

The Minister of Tourism, Nayef Al Fayez, tweeted me shortly after I posted to say the changes will come into effect between this month (May) and September 2015:

Then this morning, Michael Nazzal, senator and director of the Jordan Hotels Association, tweeted me to confirm that the unified site ticket mentioned in the press release would cover admission to “museums and other sites”, and would cost 70JD, rather than my guess of 90JD.

That’s as much as I know. As soon as more details come out, I will post here.

Jordan changes visa regulations

5 May 2015

Yesterday (May 4th, 2015) Jordan announced it was changing regulations surrounding tourist visas and taxes. On the face of it, this is very welcome – Jordanian tourism is in a terrible state, and Jordanians are suffering because of it.

However, the changes raise some questions, which as yet remain unanswered.

Here is a link to the full press release.

Now for the detail.

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1) Waiving visa fees for tourists of all nationalities coming through Jordanian tour operators whether traveling individually or in groups. The visa fee is waived on the condition that the traveler/travelers spend a minimum of two consecutive nights in Jordan.

Great – a positive, progressive move. It was 13 months ago when the visa fee was doubled overnight, from 20JD to 40JD. That was a mistake. I’m glad it has been rescinded. Now, even travellers who like to travel completely independently are unlikely to view booking two nights’ accommodation through a Jordanian tour operator as a hardship. The only query is in the phrase “coming through” – is a hotel reservation sufficient, or will you have to prove a booking – or does “coming through” actually require a complete package including flights? Not clear.

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2) Waiving visa fees for individual tourists who have organized their trip to Jordan without arrangements through a tour operator and have purchased the unified tourist site ticket on the condition that they spend a minimum of three consecutive nights in Jordan.

This raises more questions. Nobody I’ve spoken to – experts, travel professionals, even Jordan tourism officials – knows what a “unified tourist site ticket” is, what it covers, or where or how you can buy it. If it is a new product – a single ticket granting admission to every tourism site in the country – that is, on the face of it, a good thing, reducing bureaucracy, queues, uncertainty, etc and encouraging more visits to minor sites. Please tell us more.

However, let’s do some adding-up: Petra admission is 50JD, Jerash is 12JD, Baptism Site is 12JD… the total for every site in Jordan would come to something around 90JD, at a guesstimate. Waiving a 40JD visa fee on the condition that you have to purchase a 90JD site ticket isn’t much of a bargain! More information is needed on these conditions.

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3) Reducing visa fees for tourists entering Jordan through land borders. The visa fee will be reduced from 40JOD to 10JOD on the condition that these tourists spend a minimum of three consecutive nights in Jordan.

Another good idea. But how will this be enforced? Will it be sufficient, when entering Jordan overland, simply to state an intention to stay 3 nights? Will you have to show evidence of a firm booking? Or will just a reservation do? How about people who are staying with friends – how can they prove the duration of their visit? This needs clarification.

Also, since no tourists are entering Jordan overland from Syria or Iraq currently, and visa-requiring tourist entries from Saudi Arabia are minuscule, this must be directed purely at arrivals from Israel. Why has a 10JD fee been retained in this case, when other fees have been waived completely?

(Note – the sea border is not mentioned here, but ferry passengers from Egypt arrive in Jordan at Aqaba, where thanks to the ASEZA free zone, entry visas are already free, so no need to alter conditions.)

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4) Waiving departure tax for all scheduled flights from Aqaba and Amman, on the condition that tourists purchase the unified tourist site ticket and spend a minimum of three consecutive nights in Jordan.

This is an odd one. Departure tax (currently 30JD) hasn’t been levied in cash at the airport for many years – it has long been bound up as a hidden charge within the price of an air ticket. Will Jordan be refunding people who have already bought an air ticket out of Jordan? But wait – there’s that “unified tourist site ticket” again: what IS that, exactly? So a tourist doesn’t have to pay 30JD tax, but in return has to buy a 90JD site ticket AND spend 3 nights – do those nights have to be paid in a hotel, or can they be staying with a friend for free? And look at that wording – only “scheduled” flights count: what does that mean? It’s clear that charter flights are excluded – but is “scheduled” actually code for “legacy/full-service” carriers? Are LCCs included or excluded?

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5) Waiving the departure tax and entry visa for all low cost and charter flights leaving King Hussein International Airport – Aqaba.

More tricky wording – what exactly is a “low cost” flight? Also, it’s not the flight that pays a visa, it’s the passenger – does this mean all passengers, of all nationalities, on these kinds of flights (however they are defined) are included? But there is currently no entry visa imposed on arrival at Aqaba airport anyway, because of the ASEZA rules, so that looks like a red herring – I wonder why it was included here.

Waiving the departure tax, then, appears to be an effort to stimulate LCC and holiday charter expansion into Aqaba, by knocking 30JDpp off headline fares. Great. But those definitions need to be sorted out, I think.

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Last question: when will all this come into effect? No date is given. I hope that a decent period of notice has been allowed for, and that Jordan can break its habit of issuing peremptory overnight changes in national policy without consultation.

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On the whole, the initiative is to be welcomed, if only because it shows some creative new approaches to untangling the web of bureaucracy and regulation that hinders Jordanian tourism growth. But with no apparent slowdown in the ambition for Jordan’s tourism marketing, despite drastically reduced tourism income, I wonder how the sums add up.

And there is really no need for wordings to be so unclear – the industry, and the public, deserve more clarity on the detail. I hope that that will be forthcoming very soon.

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UPDATE 6th May 2015: brief update here, with more detail.

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To Antarctica

2 February 2015

Few journeys are truly life-changing, whatever we say. This one was.

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Please click on the link below to read (PDF – 3MB download).

Matthew Teller: Antarctica for High Life

© Matthew Teller, as published in High Life, October 2014.

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Tales from the British Library

14 November 2014

BLmapBack in August, I got a call from a PR at the British Library. They said they’d read my piece on Qatar in High Life magazine, and wondered if I’d be interested in something else to do with Qatar.

What followed was a heads-up about something which I’d already been vaguely aware of, but hadn’t properly focused on – the British Library’s ongoing partnership with the Qatar Foundation to digitise the UK’s India Office government records on the Gulf.

They invited me to the BL for a look around, and to chat with some of the curators working on this vast trove of material going back more than 250 years. I was impressed. Qatari money had, in effect, bought the BL a team of dozens of specialists, working on conserving, cataloguing, digitising and uploading paper records to a portal website that had itself been designed and built in-house from scratch. They flew me to Doha for a 3-day visit to talk to people at the Qatar National Library. The portal was due to launch in a matter of weeks.

I had lots of questions, many centred on the role of Qatar. The paper files will stay in London, but who owns the digital scans? Where is the portal – with its .qa domain – being hosted? Qatar was always pretty tangential in Gulf history compared to, say, Basra, Bahrain or Muscat: isn’t there a danger its sponsorship of this project could mislead people into thinking Qatar was more important than it actually was? Qatar censors its own media: would they censor this historical material too? Isn’t there a contradiction in Qatar – a notoriously restrictive country, which jails individuals for saying things deemed critical of the monarch – sponsoring the free, open, global dissemination of knowledge? Is the BL being taken for a ride? And so forth.

Those questions went down like a lead balloon. I got told off for asking them.

Nevertheless I wrote a story for the BBC to tie in with the portal launch – click here to read. The BBC also commissioned a ten-part weekly series of quirky stories from the newly digitised archives – stories which the BL’s curators have unearthed during their research, and which they generously pass to me. It’s fascinating. I feel rather privileged (and grateful) that they let me tinker with their stuff. I’m also having lots of fun writing up these little vignettes.

Part 1 is about an isolated telegraph station off the Omani coast.

Part 2 celebrates a minor official in Baluchistan and his over-familiar approach to office etiquette.

Part 3 picks out a British diplomat’s testy response to a Saudi request for money as being the start of US domination of Gulf politics.

Part 4 is about pearl-diving in the Gulf, with fabulous pics from London’s National Maritime Museum.

Part 5 tells the tale of a French secret agent in Persia – and his mysterious death.

Part 6 mixes the life-story of an independent-minded musician with rare early tracks digitised from 78rpm shellac discs.

Part 7 introduces the story of Britain’s pre-WW1 secret weapon in the Gulf: a monumental, 5,000-page gazetteer.

Part 8 is a brief overview of the lost Jewish communities of Arabia, with a fabulous music clip.

Part 9 tells the story of William Shakespear (not that one!), who began Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Part 10 is about a local agent in Sharjah exposing the Sheikh’s pro-Nazi sentiment during WW2.

Part 11 gives an insight into British colonial influence in Kuwait, as a restaurateur is accused of serving cat-meat.

New stories go up every Saturday in the “Magazine Monitor” section of the BBC News website (top right on this page) – look out for them, from now until the end of January 2015. I tweet about them a lot @matthewteller.

A magazine in the US has also commissioned me to write a longer piece on the BL-Qatar partnership, looking at what I think are the fascinating implications of publication of these historical records en masse to a free-to-access website, both for academic study of the Middle East and for broader cultural relations between the Arabic- and English-speaking worlds. That will come in mid-2015, I expect.

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BBC stories: hot (Doha) and cold (Antarctica)

13 November 2014

A couple of my stories went out on the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent programme this summer.

First – a hot place. My story from Doha looked at how sudden extreme wealth hasn’t necessarily been a wholly positive experience for Qatar and Qataris. Radio 4 audio here starts 17’27” (a slightly edited version went out on World Service here). The transcript, which ran on the BBC News site as this feature article, went – kind of – viral, with apparently 1.2 million page-views in the first 24hrs after publication. It was also picked up by local independent media site Doha News here, sparking much comment.

Then – a cold place. After my trip to Antarctica last December, I wrote a piece looking at the intricacies of Antarctic politics: Radio 4 audio here starts 8’38” (a slightly edited version went out on World Service here). The transcript, which again ran as this feature article, also drew attention. It was picked up on Beacon here, and later I was contacted by a couple of Antarctic scientists, one from the UK, another from New Zealand, to point out that my wording could be misleading – the situation regarding the Antarctic Treaty will change in 2048, but nothing is ‘up for renewal’. The date marks an administrative shift from consensus decision-making to majority decision-making. At that point the ban on mineral mining can be overturned, but only if a binding legal regime is put in place to regulate it. It’s all a bit complicated, but the effect is that it appears I may have overstated the threat 2048 poses. More analysis required…

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Stories from Qatar

12 November 2014

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be in Qatar, on assignment for the British Airways inflight magazine High Life. It was for an idea I’d pitched to them, trying to give a bit of insider perspective to the way Doha is usually covered in the Western media – which tends to be either PR-driven guff about fancy hotels and multibillion-dollar developments, or hard-hitting exposes of the Qatari government’s truly appalling record on human rights. Both have validity, but neither tells the whole story. I went for a people angle. Stories. Storytelling. This was the result, with fantastic pictures by Andrew Shaylor. I had a brilliant time writing it – so much fun. I hope you like it, too. Click to read . .

Sandhurst and the Sheikhs

23 September 2014

THE CHASE:

My half-hour documentary for BBC Radio 4 on Britain’s contradictory military relationship with allies in the Gulf was broadcast August 27th, 2014. Full audio here or here, related article here.

 

BACKSTORY:

On March 5th last year, 2013, while discussing possible ideas for the BBC Radio 4 commissioning round, I sent an independent production company, Whistledown, a short email summarising an idea I’d had:

Five reigning Arab monarchs have passed through the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst: the kings of Bahrain and Jordan, emirs of Kuwait and Qatar and Sultan of Oman, alongside a long list of lesser sheikhs and princes. Sandhurst recently sparked outrage by accepting £3m from Bahrain and £15m from the UAE to rededicate two buildings. Using archive, analysis and new interviews, we examine Sandhurst’s longstanding links with Gulf royalty over six decades, explore how it treats its royals, and assess the ‘Sandhurst influence’ on the ongoing Arab Spring protests across the region.

There were mistakes in there (it’s not five, it’s four – the previous emir of Kuwait went to Sandhurst, but not the current emir – and the UAE donation was for a new building, not to rededicate an existing one) – but the idea stood. Whistledown longlisted it. Then the BBC shortlisted it. Then, incredibly, Radio 4 commissioned it. That was July 2013. Whistledown assigned a producer, the wonderful Karen Pirie, and we started work together, her and me, in December.

I’ve spent my life working alone. Writers do. I thought I’d be doing it again here, planning everything, setting it all up, writing everything. And similarly Karen – used to working with presenters who get parachuted in at the end of a production, to conduct pre-selected interviews and read a pre-prepared script – thought she’d be doing everything herself.

In the end, after working out where we both stood, neither of us did everything. We collaborated. And, speaking personally – what a revelation. Tremendously exciting. Two people with different approaches, complementary skills and a (small) budget to make things happen – it may be what normal people do every day, but not me. What a refreshing, liberating way to work.

Planning began in January. There was a visit to the BBC archive in May. We did interviews in June and July, and after a frenetic few days of writing and rewriting, I recorded my links in studio and on location at the beginning of August. A few days later, Karen finished her edit and the programme was complete, under Whistledown’s title “Sandhurst and the Sheikhs”.

Here is the 28-minute programme – the original BBC page here, and a duplicate at Soundcloud here. I hope you agree with me (and Whistledown, and Radio 4) that it is a programme worth making, and a subject that deserves more scrutiny than it gets.

BBC News Online commissioned a stand-alone feature to run in tandem – here it is.

A couple of weeks before broadcast, the BBC media centre put out a press release, which was picked up here and there. Radio Times named the programme one of their picks of the day, as did the Sunday Times.

SandhurstRTimes

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This below, I think, is the Yorkshire Post.

SandhurstYPost

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There have been some very nice tweets and emails – thank you to everyone who responded.

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