“Did you vote for Petra?” the middle-aged Jordanian man sitting next to us in the Amman airport café asked. Alisha and I had been hearing this question for weeks as we traveled through Jordan last year, and Jordanians seemed genuinely invested in our replies.
In 2006, the Zurich-based New7Wonders Foundation selected Petra — the ornate tombs and temples of a two-thousand-year-old Nabataean Arab city carved out of red sandstone cliffs — as one of twenty-one finalists for the New Seven Wonders of the World. Through an international election via e-mail and cell phones, the foundation aimed to draw attention to human heritage sites and raise support for maintaining and restoring them. The election process resulted in over 100 million votes cast for the finalist sites on six continents.
So along with all the other arrivals at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport last summer, Alisha and I were handed pamphlets urging us to visit and vote for Petra. vote4petra billboards and wish bracelets decorated Jordan’s streets and people. Tents full of computers for free voting dotted the country’s towns, and Jordanian television featured hours of Petra images accompanied by placid classical music.
A seventeen-year-old “Miss Petra” was even crowned to draw attention to the site’s candidacy.
Tourism is one of the only avenues for economic growth in Jordan, and the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism predicted that if Petra were elected as one of the new wonders, the country would see an overall doubling of visitors — reversing tourism’s sharp decline during the past decade, when regional instability and Westerners’ fear of terrorism kept visitors away. After Jordan’s 1994 peace agreement with Israel, hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists sparked a hotel-building frenzy in Wadi Musa, the closest town to Petra. But when the influx of Israelis dissipated after 1996, the community’s sixty new hotels stood mostly empty. Wadi Musa’s tourist-dependent economy further worsened after 9/11.
The ubiquitous Vote for Petra campaign ultimately cost private businesses and the Jordanian government tens of thousands of dollars, and not all Jordanians were happy about this. One university student we met in the Baqa’a Palestinian refugee camp called the spending “a waste.” He cited the country’s needs for improved educational and transportation infrastructure as more important than increasing tourism. Some Jordanian archaeologists also expressed the concern that if clear regulations and visitor paths are not developed at Petra, the increased tourism may irreparably damage the site.
Despite these criticisms, when the results of the voting were announced at midnight on 7/7/07, a crowd gathered in the Amman airport café around a television showing thousands of celebrants at the floodlit facade of Petra’s pillared Treasury. As the contest officials named Petra one of the seven winners, the airport crowd clapped and the screen showed the throngs at Petra dancing, singing, setting off fireworks, and waving Jordanian flags. In the end, Petra received more than 22 million votes despite Jordan’s population of just over 6 million. This earned the ancient city second place behind China’s Great Wall. The other places elected were Peru’s Machu Picchu, the Mayan temple of Chichen Itza, Rome’s Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, and Rio’s statue of Christ Redeemer. Though the Statue of Liberty was a finalist, most American voters didn’t support the New York icon.
Now the global public has another chance to name place marvels as the New7Wonders Foundation accepts nominations for the so-called New 7 Wonders of Nature. As of June 2008, 281 natural monuments on six continents are in the running, and online voting at www.new7wonders.com is taking place to determine seventy-seven semifinalists. After the December 31, 2008, deadline for nominating sites, a panel of experts will select twenty-one finalists from the top nominees. Then voters worldwide will elect seven natural wonders to be announced in summer 2010.