By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) - Ryanair aims to double the number of routes and passengers it flies to Jordan next year following rapid growth since launching flights to the country last year, the head of Europe's biggest budget airline told Reuters.
The Irish airline, which began flying to Jordan in February 2018, currently operates 14 routes to the capital Amman and the Red Sea port city of Aqaba, and will add four new routes for the winter season in Europe.
After talks with Jordanian officials, Chief Executive Michael O'Leary said he expected to reach around 1 million passengers in 2020 from the roughly 500,000 expected this year.
"We could double the number of routes to 40 routes connecting other cities in Germany, Poland, Italy, Greece and others to Jordan," O'Leary said in an interview in Amman, urging the government to waive a $56 (£43) visa at the airport to help boost passenger numbers.
O'Leary said Ryanair in total expected to carry almost 150 million passengers this year, the vast majority on routes in the European Union, although it also flies to some non-EU countries, including Israel and Morocco.
Jordan has courted Ryanair, which flew 300,000 passengers in the first year of its launch, a key factor behind the 13 percent rise in tourism receipts last year to a record $5.2 billion.
The recovery in tourism has been a major economic boost to the cash-strapped country that has been forced to adopt IMF-guided austerity measures, sparking major protests last year.
Jordan's open skies agreement with the EU in 2010 that abolished all restrictions gave the country an edge over other Middle Eastern countries that have sought to protect their national carriers.
"Jordan is Ryanair's by far fastest (growing) winter sun destination. It's growing faster than Morocco, Canary Islands, Southern Italy and Greece. You have an enormous potential here for inbound tourism," O'Leary said.
Morocco is Ryanair's biggest market in the Middle East, with 2.5 million passengers annually, followed by Israel which gets 1.3 million to Tel Aviv airport alone.
In European tourists' minds, Jordan and Israel are less of a security concern than other destinations in the Middle East, such as Tunisia and Egypt, O'Leary said.
"Jordan is very much ahead of Middle Eastern destinations ... In European minds there are no security or safety issues visiting Jordan and Israel," he said.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Mark Potter)