More Jordan links
Aqaba is crammed into a little strip of land between the mountains and the sea. Across the water one can see the mountains of Sinai, and Eilat in Israel is only a few miles away to the west. Indeed, when arriving in Aqaba from the Desert Highway, it is not immediately obvious that one is looking at two towns (and countries) and not a single one. Just 25 kilometers to the south is Saudi Arabia.
I find this a nicer town than Amman. It is a free trade area (the "Aqaba Special Economic Zone"), so many people from south Jordan come here to shop. Most prices are lower than elsewhere, but you are subject to customs duty when you take goods outside the area - there is a control point. However, the officials are reasonable, and if you have low taxed items for your own consumption, you are unlikely to be asked to pay. This does NOT necessarily apply to electrical goods. For those who are thirsty, the off-duty prices also apply to alcohol, beer and wine! Have a look at Sami's Supermarket, opposite to the Cairo-Amman Bank. He has a couple of neighbours if you want to compare prices. Imported cigarettes are also cheaper here but tend to be rather dried up.
The Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA for short) has introduced a special Economic Zone visa for Jordan, to be known as an "ASEZ visa". This is a new rule, and the details have already been changed several times since its introduction in April 2002. Right now the conditions are these:
Anybody arriving in Aqaba, whether at the port, at the airport or at the Arava crossing from Israel can get a free visa for Jordan. There is no obligation associated with this visa, providing they leave the country within one month and do not need to register their visa for "renewal". Their passports are not subject to any special checks when they leave the Economic Zone.
People arriving at any entry point other than Aqaba, who say to the authorities that they are going to Aqaba can claim a free visa, but with the obligation to register with the ASEZA visa office in Aqaba within 48 hours of their arrival in Jordan. Failure to do this brings liability to pay for the visa plus a fine of 1.5JD/day for each day non registered. (When I say "48 hours" I mean 48 hours, minute to minute! If weekends or holidays come into this, then you are unlucky...)
Anybody arriving in Aqaba can if they wish, ask for a normal visa (usual price=10JD) instead of the free ASEZ visa. In this case if they want to stay longer than one month they can register at their local police station as per current practice.
Anybody holding an ASEZ visa, and wishing to stay longer than one month must extend it at the ASEZA office in Aqaba and not with their local police station as holders of a normal visa can do, so remember this and be careful about claiming the ASEZ visa if you will be in Jordan for longer than one month.
Everybody without a specific exemption must pay the 5JD exit tax whether holding an ASEZ visa or not and wherever leaving the country. Travellers staying in Jordan less than 24 hours are considered to be "in transit" and are exempt from the tax, as are certain cruise ship passengers.
In other words, if you are staying less than one month in the country and arrive in Aqaba, you can ask for a free visa without hesitation. If you arrive somewhere else, you must decide if you want the hassle of getting to Aqaba within 48 hours or if you prefer paying the 10JD (approx 16USD) for a normal visa.
Please note that these visas differ from the usual Jordanian visa in that they expire when you exit Jordan at any border. They CANNOT be used to re-enter Jordan at the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge in the same way that Jordan visas can.
The background is that ASEZA visas are issued in order to attract business and investment into Aqaba. Tourists are then not restricted from using them to travel around Jordan, although ASEZA do, apparently, reserve the right - if, for instance, someone enters Aqaba on a free ASEZA visa then immediately leaves Aqaba in order to travel around Jordan - to rescind their ASEZA visa on the 'border' (Wadi Yitm road/Wadi Araba road etc) and ensure they buy a Jordan visa for 10 JD. In practice, this never happens - but that is the principle on which the ASEZA visa system was set up.
They are intended to benefit Aqaba, and Aqaba alone - not the whole of Jordan. ASEZA visas are for entering Aqaba only, and not at any other point.
The ASEZA offices incidentally are a little way out of town on the road leading to Amman and the airport. I should be hard put to it to give an exact address, ask a taxi for the "acleem" offices, few of them seem to know the abbreviation ASEZA. It's a little bit further up from the Arab Bridge Maritime offices and very close to the Safeway Supermarket, but on the main road beside a roundabout. If you need your visa registered for a stay of more than 3 months you can have it done here if you are in Aqaba. I warn you, that at the moment, you still need a bloodtest to show that you do not have AIDS. The phone number of ASEZA is 03.209.1000 and the visa office extension number is 3515. This is not in the main office building, but just on the other side of the road and is open from 8am to 4pm.
ASEZA is very active in the development and the promotion of the Aqaba region and there are a number of ambitious building projects in the course of realisation. The Tala Bay resort along the South Beach (www.talabay.jo) will be an important tourist resort playground as will be the Aqaba Lagoon to the west. Plans for these include a golf course, a yacht marina, and a dolphinarium where those with special needs (and others) can swim with the dolphins. In March 2006 these projects were a long way from completion.
A number of shopping malls are either finished or on the way to being so, so you can take the fullest advantage of the off duty prices. Be careful of the huge Chinese complex, the Humam, the prices are very cheap, but the goods tend to be shoddy! For some things, to be sure, this doesn't matter!
The Aqaba Tourist Office is at the Aqaba Municipality Service Centre where the Corniche Road joins the road from Amman. It is in the middle of the circle just opposite the Ali Baba Restaurant on the one side and the big MacDonalds on the other - see nr 12 on the town plan of Aqaba.
If you arrive in Jordan from Israel, you can get the visa at the border as said. Taxis are available there, but they tend to "add on" a bit to the prices! There are also servic taxis, consting 1JD the place who would take you to Aqaba town, where the taxis are a bit more reasonable in their expectations. The standard fare from central Aqaba to Petra is 35JD and to Wadi Rum 25JD. These prices are generally respected.
There are frequent buses between Aqaba (the central bus station) and most of the towns in south Jordan including Wadi Rum - 2 services a day except Fridays - and of course to Petra and to Amman. This latter is one route where the Jett buses do come in useful, they leave from the Jett office on The Corniche, phone 03.201.5222. The Trust International Transport (An-Nahda Street) also offers six services to and from Amman every day including Fridays, their phone number is 03.203.2300. Locals much prefer their buses to the Jett ones. I have given the full timetables in the "Hard Facts" page under "buses".
JETT also runs a "VIP" service, with more comfortable buses and a return fare to Amman of 40JD if you are interested! Seetheir website at http://www.jett.com.jo/english.htm
There was talk of a train service between Aqaba and Wadi Rum, but the slope up through Wadi Itms turned out to be too steep for the "authentic" steam engine - a pity!
The main bus station is just below the police station. You can go straight downhill from the bus station to reach the shops. You pass beside one of the public gardens, it's a pity that the entrance to the garden is closed up at the top, and you can only get into it from opposite the shops. There is a children's playground here, complete with swings and simple roundabouts.
Some typical taxi fares from the town towards diving/snorkelling and other useful destinations :
The sea makes a big difference in the atmosphere. The public beaches are a bit grotty and are much frequented by locals looking to ogle tourists - it is better to pay a small sum and use the hotel beaches. Many small hotels have an arrangement with one of the larger ones for a reduced price access to their beach. South of the port there are a couple of private places for hassle free bathing and sunbathing, that come equipped with snorkelling facilities and transport from the town (see below). The only problem here is that there isn't all that much transport back to the town. See the page on Diving and snorkelling in Aqaba
The glass bottomed boats are a big attraction and you shouldn't miss going out on one. They usually wait for customers on the public beach, but several (the best equipped and the less easily bargained for!) are to be found on the hotel beaches. The price does depend on how well you bargain and how brisk business is. A two hour trip is likely to cost between 15 and 25JD FOR THE BOAT. A one hour trip doesn't go much further than inside the harbour where the coral, however picturesque, is mostly dead. If you can find the money for a longer trip, you will be taken out parallel to the coast towards the Power Station coral reef where there are numerous fish to be seen, including flying fish of course, and a lot of coral, but you are looking at somewhere around 30JD here - again for the boat. If you just want to go out for a ride on the water, then a half hour is plenty, and in that case the boatman will usually go towards the west. Please see the page on diving/snorkelling if you should be interested in snorkelling excursions.
The Ali Baba restaurant is probably the best known sea food restaurant in Jordan, another good place for seafood is the Captains'. Cheaper than these two are the numerous restaurants on the town beach on the edge of the water : the only occasional problem is getting one's feet splashed when a larger or faster boat than usual goes by (rather fun, this!). No special recommendations here, they change ownership and cooks fairly often! You pay your money and you take your chances!
Hanni Ali's place, next door to the Ali Baba is the best place in Aqaba to buy "sweets" or Arab pastries, the ice cream is also very good there. I enjoy indulging in their "continental breakfast" if I come to Aqaba by the early bus from Wadi Mousa.
I have to admit that Hanni Ali can be considered as an "upmarket" restaurant, also they only open at 10am. If you want a cheaper place to eat, brimming over with local colour, try Al-Mohandes on the Al-Hammamet al-Tunisieh Street (there are many banks and ATMs along this street!). This is the Jordanian equivalent of a fast food place, with lots of filafel being taken out. You can also get omelettes and salad, and if you should find the main dining room noisy and crowded there is a "women and families' room" upstairs, where women can find a bit of quiet. The service here (upstairs) isn't marvellous, either make sure that somebody knows that you are going up, or leave an order at the counter first.
There is also a good place tucked away behind the main market street, the Al Shami restaurant, which has a terrace with a great view. It's in an alley with steps running down between the Zahran and Raghadan Streets and although it looks "touristy" it is very attractive with air conditioning, which has revived me on more than one occasion. In fact the clientèle is mostly local. Thank goodness, this is air conditioned!!!
If you are less interested in Arabic food, check out the Aqaba Gateway complex, on the crossroads of the Corniche and the main road from Amman, next to the Aqaba Municipality Service Centre (nr 12 on the town plan of Aqaba). There is a whole assortment of restaurants here, from the big and gaudy MacDonalds, to an ice cream parlour via The Rover's Return, presumably transplanted from Coronation Street to Aqaba. The Lebanese restaurant is quiet and cool and has an attractive dhow moored alongside it, which looks ancient and completely authentic.
One of the nice things about Aqaba is the gardens. There is a good one alongside Mohandes with a big fountain and tables and seats in the shade, so you can take your filafel sandwich here to eat. There is another opposite to the main souk, between the Arab bank and the Mobilcom offices, also with seats and tables in the shade (this is the one I mentioned higher up, below the bus station). Very useful if you are into picknicking.
The food market, incidentally, is here, just behind the big photographer's studio Hagoub (If you need your photos developed, they do excellent work and are very reliable). When you come out from the studio turn to the left and a few meters down there is a little alley leading off the left. This is where you can buy as much fruit as you like, meat and fish are to be found a bit further on in the same alley. There is also a shop selling spices - some wonderful aromas!
There are a number of hotels in Aqaba suitable for all budgets. For the cheap end, the Red Sea Hotel (+9126.96.36.1996, Fax 5789) and the Nairoukh One Hotel (tel. +9188.8.131.5284, Fax 9285) are quite pleasant. You can sleep on the roof of the Petra Hotel (+9184.108.40.20646), which is strictly backpacker type accommodation but which does have a lovely view.
Southern Resorts - Tala Bay
The Tala Bay Resort, 14kms to the south of Aqaba, is now operational and more and more people are staying there. Among the hotels are the Radisson, the Movenpick and the Marina Plaza. (see http://www.talabay.jo/). As well as hotels there are plans for villas and apartments, shops and offices, and a private marina.
If you should be looking for luxury beach-side accommodation, there is plenty of it. You might like to check out also the rather cheaper Coral Bay Hotel at http://www.rdc.jo/coralbay.htm
A number of services are clustering around this area: several dive centres are now based there, where they are closer to the main reefs, and activities such as wind surfing and kite surfing are being introduced - for more information on this see Hatem Mansur phone 0795773935, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Hatem's website is being updated and is not at the moment on line. Lessons from one hour upwards are available, a "weekend course" lasting five hours costs 150JD. Simple rental is also possible, prices ranging from 30JD for half an hour, but for a longer period, the rental is comparatively cheaper. Hatem has a rescue boat standing by (let's hope not necessary) and smaller sail boats are also available for hire.
Parasailing is also offered by Sindbad, phone inside Jordan 03.205.0077.
There is a great new possibility : the "Neptune", a boat operating out of Tala Bay; guests can sit below water level in the deep keel and view the reef through large windows... great for families and non divers etc. See www.aqababoat.com phone +962 (0) 779430969. This is much better than the traditional glass bottom boats although they still have their place. More up market options are becoming available.
See also the next page on Aqaba, talking quickly about Diving and Snorkelling.
There is now an excellent site about Aqaba, with information also about some of the rest of Jordan. A few details in this section are inaccurate, but this doesn't stop it being an invaluable source of information about Aqaba. See www.your-guide-to-aqaba-jordan.com