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Cranes work day and night to complete the 365-room Kempinski resort on the Dead Sea. Nearby, a cluster of resorts is doing unprecedented business. The activity hails the emergence of Jordan's once-sleepy border strip with Israel as a top regional retreat with a diverse clientele ranging from global executives and Gulf businessmen to U.S. commanders taking a break from the conflict in Iraq.

Since last year, international hotel chains in Jordan have seen almost full occupancy rates for the first time since a multibillion-dollar investment spree a decade ago by investors hoping for an elusive Middle East peace dividend. "The tourism boom in the last 12 months, including the buoyant business activity, has almost doubled occupancy levels at the country's five-star hotels to a high of 85 per cent," said Michael Nazzal, president of the Jordan Hotel Association.

After lagging behind its competitors, such as the upscale core of rebuilt Beirut and metropolitan Cairo, Jordan's capital of Amman is catching up as a regional business and tourism hub where once-quiet neighbourhoods are now dotted with lively night spots. Commercial streets are crowded with the latest U.S. franchised food outlets and shopping malls.

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Industry executives said Jordan's resort business is benefiting from regional political uncertainty, diverting holidaymakers to the country along with a post-Iraq-war boom fuelled by demand from wealthy Iraqis and U.S. servicemen on their way into and out of Iraq. "We are benefiting from being a gateway to Iraq and Palestine," said Saleh Refai, general manager of Zara Investment Holdings, the country's largest hotel investment holding firm.

The expanding business has transformed a country with a 18,000-hotel-room capacity into a regional corporate conference hub, drawing multinational bodies and international charities from Europe and Asia. The kingdom boasts a capacity of more than 5,000 five-star hotel rooms.

Jordan's Western tourists are trickling back after numbers dropped dramatically following a pullback in travel after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. About 1.7 million tourists stayed overnight in Jordan last year, a 7.4-per-cent increase from the previous year.

Busloads of tourists near downtown Amman's Roman amphitheatre, where groups of Spanish, Italian and German tourists mingle with locals, have become a common sight. "European and even American tourists are slowly coming back to Jordan, which they had shunned because of fears of troubles in Iraq and Palestine," said Nassar Kawar, head of Petra Tours.

Arab Gulf tourists deterred by violence in Lebanon and Egypt are also switching this summer season to Jordan, which is seen as a haven from violence. Official figures show that Arab Gulf arrivals rose 32 per cent to 466,592 in 2004 from the previous year. "Gulf visitors are our main tourists and we hope to have bigger arrivals," said Mazen Homoud, head of the Jordan Tourism Board, the marketing body that is focusing on a campaign to attract high-spending tourists.

The tourism boom is encouraging more reliance on the industry, which officials say has attracted about $2.1-billion of local and foreign investments in recent years and is now the country's biggest foreign-exchange earner.

Bouran said investors were attracted by tax incentives to foreigners, citing large projects under way such as resorts in the Red Sea town of Aqaba, once a drab port. She said the outlook for the year was even more promising than last year when receipts rose to $1.2-billion, a 4.5-per-cent rise from the previous year.

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Industry experts reckon the country, which officials tout as one of the region's fastest-growing tourist destinations, is also poised to cash in on religious, archeological and ecological tourism. The city of Petra, Jordan's main tourist magnet, is seeing a three-fold rise in visitors, mostly Europeans and some North Americans, Bouran said.

Jordan Tourism Board: 1-877-733-5673; .

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