The Jordans most visited tourist destination, Petra, has a selection of scams and extra services to offer to trick you hand over more money you intended to spend. The good news is, as far as touristic places go, Petra is mostly safe to visit. You are not likely to be harmed and with a common level of care taken not even pickpocketed.
The bad news is, the odds are that the friendly local offering you <fill in the blank> is not likely to let the truth get on the way of a good story. If exaggerating, misrepresenting and cutting corners gets you to hand over some cash, so be it.
Most of the scams I heard and met in Petra aim to trick you to hand over your money yourself. Is it actually a scam when you agree to it? Is it a cultural difference that western travellers don’t know how to handle or a wilful scamming? While it is always better to assume goodwill, the fact remains if you don’t have a budget for it, it’s better to avoid extra spending.
Here is a list of the common tricks, scams and sweet-talk that I encountered in Petra. To know about them before you go to your visit to Petra is probably the best way to avoid falling for a scam.
1. “Do you have a ticket to visit Petra?”
Even before you enter Petra a guy may approach you with this question. The really high Petra entrance fee (50JD/62€ for the first day, 55JD/68€ for two days and 60JD/74€ for three days) makes looking an alternative really tempting.
Sales pitch – “Do you have a ticket? I can get you in with the half price. Why should the government take the half, right?”
What may actually happen – I’m not going to lie to you, there are ways and success stories. There are also people who get caught trying and ended up paying an even larger fine and/or even spending a night in jail. While with glass-half-full kind of people it may sound like an opportunity for free lodging you will like have yourself kicked out of Petra and possibly also in Jordan.
Also, if you enter Jordan across the land border you may want to get a Petra visit stamp in your paperwork to avoid an extra fee on exiting the country.
2. Entering Petra by horse-and-carriage
Now that you are through the main gates of Petra and walking along the first path you are being called by many people on the path.
Sales pitch – “Ride a horse/carriage to Petra, it’s included in the ticket. It’s written right there. I didn’t believe it myself at first either” and shorter variations in form of “No charge”.
Reality – far from being included in the ticket you will not be allowed to leave without leaving the handler a large tip. Also, you can only ride a horse until Siq (ancient main entrance leading to the city of Petra). Horse-and-carriage can take you until the Treasury and back (for JD20 return). While later is a great option for people who have limited mobility it’s by no means “free” or “included in the ticket”.
How to avoid it: You will have many and repeating offers. All one really can do is say “la, shukraan” (no, thank you) and keep walking.
3. Petra climbing trails – taking a donkey ride in Petra
Sales pitch – “Donkey up to the Monastery! Only 20 minutes with a donkey but one-hour walking. I make you a good price.” This kind of offers become more and more frequent around the spots where you head to a more difficult trail. The walking times are inflated and ride times deflated generously.
Reality – While the hike up to the Monastery is a bit of a climb (took me 30-40 minutes with few stops for photos and sights along the way) it was far from one hour (even for my untrained self with blisters on my feet). There are many donkeys in Petra. They are cute and colourful, but riding a donkey up the steep paths are dangerous to the animals and damaging to the fragile paths.
How to avoid – just say no, “la, shukraan”, and keep walking. They are likely to call after you a few more times and finally settle with “later than”.
4. Guided tour of Petra city
In many larger Arab cities (Marrakesh for example) you can discover that the friendly, chatty local (who was going to the same direction) expects a large tip for a “guide services” provided. Despite the guides in Petra being (usually) upfront about offering a service, it’s reasonable to assume that an offer to help means paid service. Then you can politely refuse the help (read service) or agree to the price in advance.
A self-guided tour of Petra can be made with the free map from the visitor centre. The map has eight trails from an easy, moderate and hard level (with estimated time) that are easy enough to follow. The ZigZag On Earth has put together a nice post about trails of Petra.
Sales pitch – in addition to the official guided tours of Petra, there are non-official guides offering to take you to interesting paths or simply lead the way. “Would you like to go hike in the Indiana Jones way? I can take you to the trail to see the treasury above.”
What’s the catch – the trails they take you are either the ones you can easily find with a map yourself or they take you to non-official trails that are not allowed. Last can get you into trouble or end up with an injury.
How to avoid – If you want to have a guided tour get the official guide. If you decide to use the non-official guide services make sure it’s really clear where the guide will take you and where they will leave you. Pay for when the tour is completed or it’s likely that your guide will at some point leave you telling you to “follow the signs back”.
If you discover that you have required an unwanted guide who refuses to leave and demands a tip for services you didn’t agree to ask them to guide you to the nearest tourism police.
5. “See the Treasury above, the Indiana Jones way”
Scam – “You can only go there with a guide.” A guide offering his services in front of the Treasury will tell you that you are not allowed to go up along the stairs on the side unless you have a guide with you.
Reality – Our Moroccan companion who could speak Arab asked tourism police and was told that it’s ok to take the trail without a guide. (By the way, these fine gentlemen who look after safety and wellbeing of Petra are in my experience the only ones in Petra who don’t speak English, even the toddler offering you a set of postcards will usually come up with a few sentences.) If the trail is allowed you can go there on your own. If the trail is not allowed, having an unofficial guide with you does not make it allowed.
Authorities don’t bother much with Bedouins who roam the place quite freely. Travelers and tourists, however, can end up in jail or get a fine.
How to avoid – say no. If you want to take a specific trail but are not sure if it’s allowed, ask in the visitor center before entering Petra.
6. Are using toilets in Petra free of charge?
Petra has many locations with toilets (actual western style toilets with running water, toilet pot and a few sheets of paper handed to you at the door). There is usually an elderly lady sitting or standing in front of the facilities whose job it is to attend the toilet.
Scam – when entering the toilet the lady may show you a 1JD bill. Hmm, that’s rather expensive for a toilet visit you may think (unless you are from France, then you are probably happy it’s not five). You do your thing (you know better than to throw any of the paper in the toilet, right?!) and much-relieved exit handing the lady one Jordan dinar she is asking for.
Reality – using toilets in Petra are free of charge and toilet attendants have a monthly salary. You are allowed to leave a tip if you want to, but there is no fee to use the toilets in Petra.
How to avoid – simply refuse to pay by shaking your head. If you feel uncomfortable with a confrontation and can still hold it walk to the next toilet location. If you know yourself to be easy guilted into leaving gratitudes, carry some toilet paper with you so you would not depend on the attendant to hand you paper. It can make it easier to avoid false fee claims.
While being treated like a walking wallet and constantly targeted can be frustrating Petra is a fairly safe travel destination. With tourism police on every corner, you are not likely to be robbed or harmed physically inside the Petra during the daylight hours. I didn’t even worry about pick-pockets in Petra though you probably still should keep an eye on your belongings. Despite being one of the most expensive tourist destinations I have visited, my time in Petra was a great experience and well worth the time and energy I spent to get there.
Read more about Petra in the previous post: Visit Petra – Factoids About the Rose City and stay tuned for the next post about Visiting Petra with children.