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Where have all the divers gone? As ever, political turmoil in specific areas of the Middle East has thrown tourism across the entire region into disarray.

Many would say the physical beauty of the Middle East region is already too much of a well-kept secret. The attractions of some small pockets are, however, better known than others. And, thanks to vigorous marketing and enthusiastic personal recommendation, the Red Sea resort of Aqaba was one of the regional success stories, enjoying modest but steadily increasing success, thanks to the attractions of its water sports facilities, particularly the scuba diving.

Now, dive operators in the Jordanian Red Sea destination are asking -- as they have been for over a year -- where have all the divers gone? The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict initially scared off many foreigners and then the 11 September attacks in the United States compounded the problem.

But Aqaba dive operators say, despite the trouble their neighbours are having, their own destination -- and indeed all of Jordan -- has remained calm. There is, they insist, no reason for divers to shun the scenic seaside community that dates back to the 13th century and played host to TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.

"If a bullet is fired in Iraq, people think it's in Aqaba," laments Mohammed Al Momany, manager of the Red Sea Dive Centre.

"We're paying here for what's happening elsewhere," adds Ahmed Qatawneh, manager of the nearby Aqaba International Dive Centre.

"Here, it's calm. You can sleep on the beach and nobody will harm you. Tourists are scared because of the media. The problem is the press and its coverage elf regional conflicts."

Qatawneh started diving in 1964 as a frogman with the Jordanian navy and opened his business four years ago. He used to average two or three divers a day, mostly European but some Japanese. That has recently fallen to about seven a month.

Visiting British and American naval ships also used to deliver diving clients, but no American naval vessel has visited Aqaba since the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.

The scarcity of divers was quickly noticed by one German diver visiting Qatawneh's shop in late January. "I sometimes feel like I'm the only tourist in Jordan."

Although the Aqaba International Dive Centre has remained open, Qatawneh says he has had to trim costs, including cutting back on the use of electricity at his business, which has two diving instructors, two dive masters, and equipment for 30 divers.

Aqaba, less well known than its Egyptian Red Sea cousin of Sharm El Sheikh, but home to a variety of colourful marine life, is home to five dive operators, none of whom Qatawneh believes is in imminent danger of closing.

But cost-cutting has been necessary, says Al Momany, who has placed his dive boat in a parking lot to avoid paying marina fees. Aqaba divers can usually reach dive sites quickly by wading in from the area's beaches.

Qatawneh is currently trying to reach wary divers through Internet promotions. The dramatic decline in customers surprises the operators somewhat, given that divers are traditionally seen as adventurous people.

Al Momany, another retired navy veteran, who taught Jordan's King Abdullah how to explore the underwater world when he was still a prince, estimates he has made some 15,000 dives over the past 31 years, and says Aqaba is much under-appreciated by the world's divers.

"It is a paradise down there," he reveals. Indeed, over 140 species of coral and at least 40 species of fish and other invertebrates have been found in Aqaba's waters, which sees average water temperatures of 65 degrees in winter and 80 degrees in summer.

And, says his son, co-worker and fellow diver Omar, those divers who do decide to view the Aqaba-area coral, tropical fish and a freighter sunken to create an artificial reef, will be well rewarded.

"I just want to tell divers: don't worry, it's safe and the diving's still good," says Omar reassuringly.

Ian Stalker reports from Aqaba.
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Author:Stalker, Ian
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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