Published by ITP Business Publishing, Arabian Travel News caters for travel agents and travel providers in the Middle East region.
Tailor-made suits Yemen’s tourists
Yemen is attracting a different breed of tourist - the culture seeking eco-tourist. Presently hailing mostly from Europe and America, they are arriving in small packs rather than unwieldy groups. Consequently, tour operators in Yemen are focusing on tailor-made and specialised tours offering adventure travel, nature and hiking trips and cultural excursions. There are treks to mountaintop villages in 4x4 vehicles, camping and camel trips into the desert taking in Yemen’s exotic scenery alongside visits to Arabian heritage sites, and then there is the sea - scuba diving, and journeys in ancient dhows to unique sites such as the biologically isolated island of Socotra, sometimes dubbed ‘the other Galapagos’.
According to statistics received from Yemen Tourism, (the Ministry of Tourism Promotion Board) Yemen received 544,000 visitors during 2006, of which 262,358 came from Middle Eastern countries. Saudi Arabian visitors were the most prominent at 166,272, with the UAE contributing more than 50,000. The overall figures show a substantial growth compared to the 2005 figures of 203,000 visitors. However, there are differing opinions about these figures, for tour operators say the majority of their “real” tourists come from Britain, France, America and Italy. The difference lies in the fact that some visitors, particularly those from Asia and the Middle East, are generally not “tourists” taking a tour of the country but people travelling on business or for family reasons.
A visitor growth of over 10% is anticipated for this year, and to help meet these expectations Yemenia Airways will imminently be introducing several new tour packages to attract more tourists from the Gulf and North Africa regions. Five packages ranging from 3 nights and 4 days to 10 nights and 11 days are now available to Sana’a shortly, from destinations including Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Bahrain and Dubai, as well as from Addis Ababa, Djibouti, Khartoum and also Kuala Lumpur. Packages from Africa and the Middle East start from 294US$ per person per tour, and from US$451 from Kuala Lumpur. All packages include flights, half-board and accommodation in a choice of 2, 3 and 5 star hotels, transport by 4x4 vehicle or bus as appropriate, and will take in sights according to length of stay and customer choice.
This is the first time Yemenia Airways has offered these packages, and we “look forward to welcoming people from the Gulf – it is only three hours flight from Dubai - and Yemen is an important part of Arab heritage,” said Mr Taha Almahbashi, Yemenia Holidays manager based in Sana’a.
The majority of Yemeni tour operators are fiercely proud of their land and some, like Arabia Felix, are increasingly concerned about the fact that as the growing population and investment in Yemen increases, so too does the damage to Yemeni heritage and its unique natural beauty. The tour company believes that if Yemen wants to retain its soul, it has to encourage the involvement of all Arab countries to help Yemen protect what is precious.
Arabia Felix founder and managing director, Italian-born Marco Livadiotti, who moved to Yemen when he was five years old, is also the founder of a leading and well established tour operator, the Universal Touring Company. As a Heritage Conservation Consultant, Livadiotti is seriously passionate about what he does and works hard to promote Yemen and its culture. “The only way to save Yemen’s heritage is via the Arabs. The rich cousins must help Yemen to help itself. Yemen was there before any of the other Arab countries even started. It is the cradle of Arab civilisation – it is their identity – it is their roots. Every Arab country has a role to play in protecting Yemen from over development or mass tourism. It is not too late to save it.” Arabia Felix, which has offices in Historic Bastakiya Dubai as well as in Sana’a, encourages visitors to see “an Arabia without borders” through their 12 day tailor-made adventures covering Dubai (the modern Arabia), across Oman (where nature is a prominent feature), and along old frankincense trading routes into Yemen (historic Arabia).
Some tours operators handle a maximum of six people per tour– others cater for a maximum of 30. Future Tours Industries (FTI) say they are dedicated to providing quality, educationally rewarding “off the beaten track” tour programmes, geared towards providing visitors with an authentic look into the country’s age-old culture, local population ambiance and ancient archaeology. Dr Ahmed L Al-Amari, chairman of FTI emphasizes: “The treasures of Yemen, so ample and extremely varied, are sought by art historians, archaeologists, chefs and adventure travellers alike. Whether you consider Yemen’s age-old culture, great monuments of art, nature reserves, compelling myths, colourful bazaars, tribal areas of great fascination, spice-laden cuisine or impressive landscapes, the choice is yours.”
Summer Tours and Travel based at Sana’a provides overland trips within in Yemen, including architectural, historical, cultural and eco-tourism tailor-made packages. Scuba diving, trekking, camel tours and desert camping are their specialty.
Acacia Tours offer two to 14 day linked tours between Yemen and Jordan or Oman. One example follows parts of the Incense Road, also known as the “frankincense route”, which during Nabatean times, snaked along various difficult paths along the east coast by the Red Sea, through what is now Yemen and Saudi Arabia, on to Petra in Jordan, Gaza, Damascus and finally to Egypt.
Yemen, in the south-west corner of the Arabian Peninsula bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman, contrasts dramatically with the rest of the mostly dry, barren peninsula, for 70 percent of Yemen is mountainous, offering crisp air, unparalleled greenery and a remoteness that makes the visitor feel as if they have gone back in time by 200 years.
The country is abundant in natural, historical and archaeological attractions. It used to be known as Arabia Felix, the happy Arabia, because of its wealth, but nowadays it is the second poorest country in the Arabic world (only Mauritania has a lower per capita GDP). Notable natural attractions are Socotra Island, known for its fascinating plant diversity; its pristine coral reefs ideal for snorkeling or scuba diving; and a section of the Rub’al Khali desert (The Empty Quarter). History seeps out of every pore of Yemen, but perhaps the most striking tourist venues are its 3000 year old ancient capital city of Sana’a, said to have been founded by Sham, son of Noah, and now a UNESCO World Heritage site along with the historic town of Zabid, the former capital and first university of Arabia in the 9th century now an outstanding archaeological and historical site; its city of Shibam with its unusual skyscrapers built some 600 years ago; Hadhramaut housing graves from pre-Islamic prophets; and Marib, the former capital of the ancient empire of the Queen of Sheba also featuring the remains of a 3000 year old dam.
Yet Yemen has had a troubled history with civil wars and tribal conflicts predominating, and tourists are still warned on travel and embassy websites about visiting because of its continuing tribal unrest, and most significantly, the incidents of tourist kidnappings, the most recent of which took place in September 2006. Despite this, Abu Ali Monassar, vice chairman, Net Group, said recently that Yemen is one of the greatest countries to experience and that “Today Yemen is safe – really.” He continued: “Unfortunately, thanks to the media, when a kidnapping takes place, it absolutely destroys the image of the country,” and he felt that the country simply needs a major promotional campaign and to strongly emphasise safety. “I think it is a beautiful place with huge potential for tourism, but unfortunately, the government is not promoting the country that much; they are not participating enough in trade shows; they don’t see any return on investment.”
Livadiotti echoes Monassar’s sentiments, saying that “Yemen is one of the safest places on earth. The kidnapping is not done because of a hatred for foreigners. It is a statement of people being disgruntled, not that that is excusable.” Other Yemen based tour operators agree that it is safe providing tourists do not wander off indiscriminately into unknown areas - as would be the case in many other countries in many other far more dangerous places in the world. It is also safe if people travel with well established tour operators who have knowledgeable guides who speak the language, and are up-to-date with the security situation.
Area Manager for Yemenia Airways in Dubai and the Northern Emirates is Abdulla Kassim, who states that these incidents of abduction happened because there were differences between certain tribes and the government. “At a closer look of these incidents, one would realise that these kidnappings were just taken as an easy step to (attempt to) solve the crisis. Once their demand is met, hostages were released without causing any harm to them. Though abducted, hostages were treated kindly and considered as guests to Yemen.” New government policies are successfully addressing these differences, he said, and such incidents rarely happen at present. “However, to ensure the safety of tourists, the Ministry gives guidelines to the arriving tourist regarding the places they should not travel unescorted.” He was referring to the September incident when four French tourists were taken hostage by Yemeni tribesmen seeking concessions from the government. They were released 15 days afterwards following negotiations with the kidnappers.
Some areas of the country are off-limits to travel without military escorts and Yemen Tourist Police permission, and other areas are totally off-limits. Websites such as http://wikitravel.org still have prominent warnings to potential visitors to Yemen, as do many embassy websites, which carry similar warnings about visiting many other countries. The New York Times reported a confidence in Yemen in an article published there in January this year, stating: “Yemen is also safer today, thanks to post-9/11 ties between Yemen and the United States that seem to have quieted tribal tensions and undermined terrorist operations in the country.”
The government of Yemen has been slowly gearing itself up though, and new measures have apparently been taken to improve the investment climate to attract investors from Gulf countries, according to Dr Mohammed al-Mitami. He heads the Yemeni contingent of a joint Yemeni-Gulf committee that will outline 40 new investment opportunities in Yemen at a conference to be held in Sana’a this February (2007). Opportunities for investment in Yemen exist in a broad range of fields, including tourism, electricity, fisheries, and industrial zones, said Dr. Mohammed al-Mitami. About 400 to 600 Gulf and Yemeni corporations, some within the tourism sector, are expected to participate in the conference, which is being organised by the Yemen Ministry of Industry and Trade, in cooperation with the general assembly of the Gulf Cooperation Council (the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf).
In December last year Mutahar Taqi, chairman of Yemen’s General Tourism Development Authority said that it was imperative to spread awareness of the importance of ecotourism both at home and abroad. A careful approach to developing all aspects of tourism, and specifically to link tourism projects with improving the income of the local people in such areas was particularly important. The authority has 17 future projects for investment in tourism, which will be presented during this forthcoming conference for investment opportunities in February.
Yemen’s hotel industry is fairly under-developed, especially if compared to some of its Gulf neighbours. Sana’a holds only three-five star hotels, the Taj Sheba, Sheraton and Movenpick and there are two in Aden - the Gold Mohur Hotel & Resort and the Aden Movenpick. Other hotels offer four-star accommodation, and there are about 20 to 30 three- and two-star hotels. Local guest houses and funduqs offering very basic accommodation are also available throughout Yemen. A recent addition to Sana’a is the Burj al Salaam Hotel, a renovated old palace in the heart of the old city. Abu Ali Monassar, vice chairman of the Dubai based Net Group, which oversaw the renovations along with supervision by UNESCO, to create what he termed “a beautiful boutique product”. After 10 years meticulously working on the décor to reflect true Yemeni lifestyle including hand-made furnishings, the hotel became operational in September last year, although the official opening is due to take place this month (February 2007). “This boutique hotel combines tradition and the 3000 year old city architecture with the comfort needed by today’s tourists. We have worked inside the city without touching the existing architecture, creating a unique product comprising 47 rooms and suites, with three F&B outlets, including a panoramic roof top restaurant with views of the old and new city,” Monassar said.
“We wanted to create something from the region; something linked to the tradition of the region and the heritage of the region,” he said. “Just as we are creating a Bedouin theme in the desert in Dubai, we wanted to create a cultural theme and place where you stay and really feel that you are living like the locals.”
“Generally there is not a big investment in hotel development at the moment, but as our international tourist number increase we will need more hotels of international standards,” says Livadiotti.
Chairman of the Yemeni Society of Tourism and Travel Agencies Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Saleh announced in Sana’a in December last year that there were no security fears against investments in Yemen, and called on all investors to benefit from the riches found abundantly in Yemen. The government was keen to encourage investment and offer more opportunities and advantages to investors including revising laws potential investors still see as needing more elasticity.