A tourist’s view of Yemen [Archives:2007/1028/Opinion]

February 26 2007

Alan Rushworth
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Every year The British Yemeni Society arranges a three week tour of the Yemen. This takes place in the autumn with a maximum of 16 participants split between four Land Cruisers. The itinery is a circular tour of the country and always includes Sana'a, Mahweet, Hodeida, Taiz, Aden, Mukalla, Seiyun, Ataq and Marib. There are variations each year, so now Upper Jawaf and Baraquish are included, which did not feature in earlier years.

I have made the tour three times, 1988, 2002, and 2006, and I would like to record some of the changes that I have observed during this period.

By far the most obvious change is the tremendous improvement in the quality and network of roads. This has resulted in shorter travel times (so fewer 5.00 a.m. starts!) and has given us the chance to see even more of a diverse and beautiful country. One aspect I rather miss though is seeing the sunrise over the sand dunes between Marib and Shabwa, travelling along the edge of the dunes later in the morning is not the same!

Building is everywhere indicating significant investment. Eight years ago, I noticed very few schools now they are everywhere even in the most remote locations. Many towns seem to be exploding outwards and in 8 years appear to have doubled or trebled in area. Mukalla for example is very much larger than I remembered. Coupled with the new roads, ribbon development is becoming very common and judging from the numerous plots identified by the roadside will be endemic. One attractive feature which is new are the promenades that have been along the sea at Hodeidah, Aden, and Mukalla. Street cleanliness has markedly improved ( although Beit al Fakir is a notable exception ) and where rubbish bins are installed are well used. Inevitably all the new construction has resulted in many cement buildings, many of which have reinforcing rods sticking out of their roofs. In North Africa this also a common sight and I was told the reason is that tax is not fully payable until the building is completed, I wondered if the same principal applies to the Yemen?

I read in the Yemen Times some years ago that an edict had been issued that public workers should not chew qat whilst on duty, presumably the edict has been rescinded as the consumption of qat seems to have hugely increased amongst the police, army, and almost everybody else. In the past I never saw young boys chewing, or it being used in the morning or late at night, this is now a common sight. At the prices being quoted to tourists (even if doubled or trebled ) I wonder how most of the population can afford qat and still adequately maintain a family. The increase in qat consumption is reflected in the countryside as it is often difficult to find where any food is grown. I suppose one aspect of the qat obsession is that Yemen has demonstrated how good it is at logistics as nowhere that I travelled were fresh supplies unavailable.

However despite the apparent increase in wealth ( as demonstrated by new vehicles, roads, buildings etc.), begging has greatly increased, eight years ago, I was asked for money on four occasions, this last visit it was almost every time we stopped. In particular young women with babies were especially persistent. The worst occasion was near Sheikh Othman when having a meal in a restaurant, three of the staff were kept busy keeping the beggars away from our table. It was noticeable that local people were not hassled in the same way.

The hijab appears to be worn far more now than previously, even in cities like Aden. I wonder whether this indicates an increased interest in religion by young ladies. Somewhat in contrast however, ladies are becoming more apparent to tourists , by working in museums, hotels and offices. It was thanks to ladies that my problems with the internet were sorted after numerous attempts by their male colleagues.

Security was more relaxed we were escorted less and visited locations that were unavailable before. The police or army (I have difficulty knowing which is which as the uniforms are similar) were also less demanding, there was only one occasion when the escort were unhappy to move until provision had been made, and this was at Marib when breakfast was required. In previous years we were often expected to provide both food and qat and sometimes money before we could start. I have never felt unsafe in the Yemen and I can well believe that crime levels are low. More recently I have been in South America, when half of our group were robbed at various times.

All of our party thoroughly enjoyed visiting the National Museum and we could have spent much longer time there, the building, layout and presentation were much improved from before. It was noticeable that in all the museums we visited there were always many local people, which is not always the case in Europe and to me indicates Yemeni interest in their own culture.

However some things have not changed. Hotels nearly always needed maintenance (especially plumbing) and often redecoration,, standards had not changed much e.g. linen not changed or rooms uncleaned, although to be fair when this was pointed out to reception, corrective action was generally prompt. For me though one of the attractions of Yemen are the people, who were just as friendly and hospitable as on my first visit. As a visitor it is delightful and refreshing to be asked to share a meal with somebody you have just met. A really memorable occasion was a traditional banquet given to us as a mark of friendship when we visited Nisab.

The other things that do not change and which makes the Yemen such a great place to visit are the natural beauty and variety of the countryside, the unique architecture and of course the culture (music, dance, and poetry).

I thoroughly enjoyed my third tour of the country, and I look forward to my next visit, I am disappointed that more visitors from Britain do not make the journey.

Alan Rushworth is a British lecturer in Engineering Quality Improvement Methods. He was working in Yemen during the British occupation of Aden and is a regular visitor to Yemen.