Jordan’s beach resort of Aqaba (say it “acka-buh”) glories in an idyllic, sunny setting on the shores of the Red Sea, at the country’s southernmost tip. From something of a dowdy backwater, in the last decade or so Aqaba has transformed itself into a pleasant, if still under-resourced, leisure destination. Hotels at all grades are springing up in the town as well as at luxury waterfront developments up and down the coast; investment is coming in to improve the city’s infrastructure and facilities; and charter flights direct into Aqaba’s international airport are enabling holidaymakers to bypass Amman and the north of the country altogether. Some of the best diving and snorkelling in the world is centred on the unspoiled coral reefs that hug the coast just south of the town – an engaging contrast with the nearby desert attractions of Petra and Wadi Rum.
The city centre forms a dense network of streets and alleys clustered just behind the beach road (called the “Corniche”). Aside from shopping and promenading after dark, sights are limited to a Mamluke fort and some scanty archaeological remains. You’re likely to have more fun in the water – hotel pool, Red Sea or both.
The presence of freshwater springs rising just below Aqaba’s beaches has ensured almost continuous habitation of this bit of shore for thousands of years, though names have changed many times – from Biblical Elot to Aela, Ailana or Aila during the Roman and Islamic periods. The Arabic word aqaba means “alley”, and is a shortening of “Aqabat Aila”, referring to the narrow Wadi Yitm pass that was formerly the only route into the town through the mountains to the north.
One of the earliest references to a settlement here comes in the Old Testament (I Kings): King Solomon built a large port at Ezion Geber “beside Elot on the shore of the Red Sea” both for trade and also to house his new navy. During the 1930s, excavations at Tell al-Khaleifeh, a little west of Aqaba, seemed to indicate occupation around the time of Solomon, but archaeologists – hampered by construction of the modern Jordanian–Israeli border fence – later pinpointed occupation to have begun during the eighth century BC, much later than Solomon. Ongoing investigation is suspended while the tell lies in a militarily restricted zone, but nonetheless the real Ezion Geber must have been close by.
The Nabateans controlled a series of ports from Aqaba all down the eastern Gulf coast. Aqaba’s fresh water also ensured that the town became a caravan stop for merchants arriving from Arabia, with routes leading north to Petra and Syria, northwest to the Mediterranean coast at Gaza and west across the Sinai desert into Egypt. A highway constructed by the Roman Emperor Trajan in 111–14 AD led to Aqaba from his provincial capital at Bosra (Syria). Recent excavations beneath the beach revealed the world’s oldest purpose-built church, dated to around 300 AD.
During the Byzantine period Aqaba was the seat of a bishopric, and the town was the first prize to fall to the Muslims on their military advance northwards out of Arabia in 630. It flourished throughout the early Islamic period, hosting a theological seminary. By the tenth century, Aqaba was an important stop on the pilgrimage route to Mecca.
On their push into Transjordan after 1115, the Crusaders – led by Baldwin of Jerusalem – seized the town and built a castle, although no trace of it survives. In response, the Muslim resistance fortified a small offshore island, known to the Crusaders as the Île de Graye (today dubbed Pharaoh’s Island), and within a century Salah ad-Din had retaken Aqaba on a campaign which eventually led to Jerusalem.
A small Mamluke fort on the shore was rebuilt in the early sixteenth century, just before the Ottoman seizure of power. For three hundred years, Aqaba became again an important caravan stop, but the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 dealt a death blow. For the first time, seaborne trade around the region, and between Europe and Asia, became an economically viable alternative to the camel caravans. Equally, making the pilgrimage to the Holy Places by sea through Suez was infinitely preferable to the arduous journey through the desert via Aqaba. The town’s fortunes rapidly declined, and during the 1917 Arab Revolt, the forces of Faisal and Lawrence were able to surprise the small Ottoman garrison by approaching through the desert from the north. With all defensive artillery directed towards the sea, Aqaba fell with barely a skirmish.
Ironically, when David Lean arrived in 1962 to stage the same incident for Lawrence of Arabia, he thought Aqaba looked wrong – and so departed to film the sequence in southern Spain instead.
The sleepy fishing village was only dragged into modernity following a 1965 readjustment of the international border: Saudi Arabia got a patch of interior desert in exchange for Jordan’s gaining an extra few kilometres of coastline and coral reef south of Aqaba. This made room for construction of full-size port facilities, and since then Aqaba has seen a resurgence in overland trade, although the camel caravans of antiquity have been replaced by a continuous stream of juggernauts: Aqaba port is the sole outlet for Jordan’s principal export, phosphates, as well as the transit point for goods trucked to and from Iraq.
For years Aqaba was overshadowed by its huge Israeli neighbour Eilat, founded in 1949 and clearly visible sprawling around the opposite shore of the Gulf of Aqaba. With the recent shift in priorities away from industry towards beach tourism, the endearingly run-down Aqaba of old is being unceremoniously shouldered aside – and its long-standing fishing industry has been reduced to just a hundred individuals. In tourism terms, what levelled the playing field was the establishment in 2000 of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone, which covers the city and its surrounds. Set up with tax breaks for business and lowered customs duties, it has had a good deal of success, driving growth and spurring innovation, not least with the founding in 2008 of the Spielberg-backed Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, training students from across the region in acting, cinematography and direction. Aqaba is thinking big.
With tax breaks stimulating international investment into Aqaba, the range of development projects in and around the city is dizzying. In recent years, the entire city centre has been revamped, with new street furniture, public art and extensive replanting of palm trees (after the palm groves that used to line Aqaba’s shore had all sadly been uprooted by previous, less visionary city authorities). New shopping malls have gone up, large numbers of hotels have opened or are due to open and extensive residential suburbs are being built to cater for the city’s ballooning population.
Tala Bay, a wedge of luxury apartments, hotels and restaurants around a marina and sandy beach 15km south of Aqaba city centre, is already open. Work continues on Marsa Zayed, a $12 billion Abu Dhabi-funded ten-year scheme to rebuild an entire chunk of the city centre by moving the industrial port 20km south to the Saudi border, replacing it with skyscrapers and marinas stretching along 2km of what will become prime urban waterfront.
One scheme takes the biscuit: the Red Sea Astrarium, a $1.5 billion themed entertainment resort, is planned for the mountains above Aqaba, offering luxury hotels, shows, shopping and dining alongside an immersive space-flight entertainment adventure in the headlining Star Trek zone. King Abdullah is known to be a Trekkie, and in 1995 appeared as an extra in the Star Trek: Voyager TV show (searchable on YouTube). All very bold, but the worry is that Aqaba is trying to run before it can walk.
Despite package tourists (many from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe) flip-flopping through the streets in shorts or bikinis, Aqaba’s proximity to – and cultural links with – Saudi Arabia make this actually one of the more socially conservative urban centres in Jordan. Historically neither a trading port nor a commercial hub, Aqaba was only ever significant as a stopping-off point for pilgrims travelling to and from Mecca: if you’ve come expecting a pacy, cosmopolitan mini-Dubai, you’ll be disappointed. The contradictions between deep-set tradition, big business and mass tourism are giving Aqaba plenty to chew on.
There’s now a year-round high season. Jordan’s standard peaks (March–May & Sept–Nov) are supplemented by European tourists seeking Aqaba’s winter sun (Dec–Feb). Summer (June–Aug) is the main Saudi and Gulf holiday season, and also when Europeans come to sizzle on the beaches. The hajj pilgrimage – currently in September and/or October – is an added complication, with thousands of Egyptian and North African pilgrims stopping off in Aqaba on their way home. And holiday weekends can see Aqaba booked solid with domestic tourists, as Ammanis and others head for a short break by the seaside.
Another factor to reckon with is the extreme heat and humidity. During the four mild months around Christmas, a few days in Aqaba can pleasantly warm the chill of Amman from your bones (not for nothing does King Abdullah keep a winter residence here), but for the rest of the year, daytime temperatures damply soar. The four months of summer can be stifling, with July and August’s fifty-degree days and thirty-degree nights too much to bear.
If you’re staying at a hotel that does not have its own beach, ask at reception whether any deals are in place to allow guests beach access. Otherwise, all the five-star beach hotels will admit non-guests – though for a hefty fee (anything from JD20 to JD50) and at busy times they may turn you away.
Other than at big hotels, the best and cleanest beaches are at the South Beach zone, beginning around 8km south of town. As this book went to press, Berenice Beach was about to open – a family-friendly mini-resort complex of pools, café-restaurants and beach access. Admission is likely to be around JD10. Nearby are the more specifically tourist-focused beach resorts Club Murjan – priced similarly – and Royal Diving Club, priced a little higher. All these operate shuttle buses to and from the town centre, generally free, though the RDC charges JD2. There is also a broad stretch of poorly maintained public beach here – but facilities are few and women may be the focus of unwanted attention.
All the big hotels, beach clubs and dive centres offer a range of watersports. Prices and options vary, but expect speedboat trips, waterskiing, banana/inner-tube rides, jetskiing, canoeing, windsurfing, parasailing and more. Many of the hotels work with the local Sindbad company, so you could check prices and offers with them directly.
A number of operators (including Sindbad) feature cruises – many run only for groups, but there are also regular scheduled trips each week that are bookable by individuals. Prices are around JD25–30/person for a four-hour lunchtime cruise, including a meal on the yacht plus snorkelling, or JD15/person for a ninety-minute sunset cruise. Many firms also rent out sailing yachts and motor yachts for private excursions or fishing trips. Check online or with the tourist office for full details.
A popular budget option is a quick trip in a glass-bottomed boat, which has a viewing window to see below the surface. Dozens chug around the public beaches sharking for customers, though many are rather dilapidated: plans are in train to clean them up and organize the business. A trip in one of these simple craft should cost around JD10–15/hr for a full boat. (Note that some disreputable boat captains will dive down and snap off bits of coral to hand to their oohing-and-aahing clients. This is not only illegal but also kills the reef. If it happens, refuse to pay for the trip and report the incident to the tourist office.) A more upmarket alternative is to go with a glass-bottomed boat trip through a big hotel (or Sindbad again): a comfortable four-hour trip, including snorkelling kit and refreshments on board, costs about JD30/person – or you could splash out on a submarine adventure on the Neptune, which operates out of Tala Bay.
Perhaps the best day-voyage is to Pharaoh’s Island, a rocky islet in Egyptian waters about 17km southwest of Aqaba (and 250m off the Egyptian coast). In the twelfth century, to counter a castle at Aqaba built by the Crusaders (now lost), Salah ad-Din’s Muslim resistance fortified this barren islet, dubbed by the Crusaders the Île de Graye. The castle’s towers and passageways have been restored, but the main reason for coming is to dive or snorkel in the maze of reefs off the northeastern tip of the island.
The only way to reach Pharaoh’s Island is on one of the organized tours that run whenever there’s sufficient demand. Just about any hotel or dive centre can take a booking; expect to pay JD40–45/person, which includes everything, including lunch on board. Departure is around 8.30am, and you’re back in Aqaba by 4.30pm. You must book at least one day ahead, and leave your passport: the operator has to organize a temporary Egyptian visa. It’s not possible to cross from the island to the Egyptian mainland.
Tours to Wadi Rum are advertised at one-man-band tour “companies” and budget hotels all over Aqaba – if you express interest, they’ll dig out a photo album of their adventures, plus glowing testimonials from happy customers, to try to convince you to book. If all you want is to be driven out to a campsite somewhere in the desert near Rum, have dinner and be brought back to Aqaba in the morning – often in the company of “guides” who may not be Jordanian and/or speak little or no English – then these jaunts are great value, at JD20–25 per person. But in truth, they’re nothing like the real McCoy. And horror stories abound; one favourite ploy (apart from money upfront and tips, of course) is to demand more cash once you’re at the campsite. Refuse, and your “guide” may threaten to abandon you in the desert unless you cough up.