Petra braced for tourist hordes as easyJet flies east

The new star rising in the East is orange: easyJet's latest route, going on sale later this morning, connects Gatwick with Amman in Jordan. The no-frills airline's maiden flight to Queen Alia International Airport in the Jordanian capital will take off on 27 March. The link opens up the ancient city of Petra, the desert landscapes of Wadi Rum and the Roman ruins of Jerash to the easyJet set.

Jordan's tourism industry, which has endured a difficult decade, will be jubilant at the prospect of around 12,000 new arrivals a year. David Symes, director of the Jordan Tourist Board in the UK, said: "It will expand the market. The majority of our visitors are independent travellers, which makes easyJet a good option – travellers can be more flexible with their itineraries."

The airline already flies from Luton to Tel Aviv, making it feasible to construct "open-jaw" trips to the Holy Land using no-frills flights, travelling overland via Jerusalem and the Dead Sea to Amman. The link with Jordan also opens up intriguing possibilities for more intrepid explorers. Amman is the main hub for flights to Iraq, with links to Baghdad, Mosul and Basra.

While independent travellers will welcome another low-cost gateway to the Middle East, the move constitutes an attack on the two incumbent airlines currently flying from Heathrow to Amman. One is Royal Jordanian, an alliance partner with British Airways; the other is BMI, part of the German airline, Lufthansa. A series of test bookings made yesterday by The Independent on the Heathrow-Amman route failed to find a return fare below £463. The average easyJet fare is expected to be around half as much; the absolute lowest fare on the new route is £106 return, of which £60 goes straight to the Chancellor as Air Passenger Duty.

Paul Simmons, the airline's UK regional manager, said "We can get there at a much lower price that at present. They can cut fares a little bit, but not enough to trouble us."

A spokesman for BMI said: "It's a long flight to Amman, so better to do it in comfort on a full-service, great-value airline like BMI. We love flying to Amman and our customers love flying us to Amman."

A new "open-skies" agreement between the EU and Jordan has just been signed, opening the prospect of other European low-cost carriers – notably Ryanair – muscling in on the market.

The Middle East has long been the preserve of "legacy carriers", charging much higher fares per mile than the average rates in Europe. Neighbouring countries have already expressed interest in joining the low-cost networks; last month, the Lebanese Tourism Minister, said he would do all he could to attract easyJet and Ryanair to Beirut.

Amman, a five-hour flight from Gatwick, is easyJet's latest "mid-haul" route from its main base. Last month the airline launched services to Luxor in the Upper Nile of Egypt. This morning, easyJet is also unveiling new routes from the Sussex airport to Italy, Spain, Turkey and Scotland, stepping up competition.

Easyjet's new frontiers

April 1996 Luton – Amsterdam

July 1998 Luton – Athens

November 2004 Stansted – Tallinn

June 2006 Luton – Istanbul

November 2007 Gatwick – Sofia

January 2008 Gatwick – Thessaloniki

April 2008 Gatwick - Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt

November 2008 Gatwick - Helsinki

November 2009 Luton to Tel Aviv

December 2010 Gatwick – Amman

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