Brid Beeler, a new tourism mastermind in Yemen,pledges to make it a preferred tourism destination:”I am up to the challenge!” [Archives:2004/742/Community]
She came to Yemen after so many years of work in the region. She decided to come to Yemen because as she put it, “I pledged to come back one day and work in the country I love most.” Mrs. Brid Beeler is the new star in the tourism industry in Yemen. She is now working as the Marketing Manager of the Universal Group of Companies, which is the largest tourism group in the country.
With extensive experience in virtually all aspects of tourism and in almost all continents, Brid committed to bring all her experience to Yemen and start a full-scale marketing campaign for developing the tourism sector in all possible aspects.
She has started already visiting a large number of establishments and companies, and is willing to launch new strategies, implement new plans, begin new training programs for staff, and eventually bring Yemen's tourism sector to a much more promising level.
“It is a matter of time before we see great results” she confidently says.
Yemen Times seized the opportunity to meet this tourism mastermind and filed the following interview in order to present her views, ambitions, plans and for Yemen's tourism industry in general and her particular mission at Universal.
Q: You are now the new marketing manager of Yemen's largest tourism operator. What are your priorities, objectives, plans, and challenges?
A: The number one priority is to rewrite the Universal Corporate Brochure. Most people know the name Universal, but they do not realize the size and scope of the company. Most do not realize that Universal Touring Company began operation in 1983. Founded by Mr. Alwan S. Al Shabani and Mr. Omar M. Omar in 1983, the Universal Group today employs over 650 employees and has grown to include seven distinct companies:
– Universal Travel & Tourism
– Universal Travel & Trading Ltd.
– Universal Touring Company
– Universal Hotels Co. Ltd.
– Universal Rent a Car
– Yemen Club for Touring and Automobiles
– Tourism Investment Company.
In addition, the Universal Group has joint ventures with DHL Yemen Ltd., Al Mahweet Hotel Company, and Ramco Engineering and our franchise operations include Hertz International, Carlson Wagonlit, Destinations of the World (DOTW), and Gullivers Travel.
We are also the General Sales Agent for 10 airlines: Air Tanzania, American Airlines, British Airways, CSA, Dallo Airlines, Jet Airways, Oman Air, Red Sea Air (Eritria), Royal Jordanian, and Thai Airways International.
Universal hotels include Al Hawtha Palace in Seiyun, Bilquis Ma'arib Hotel, Shahran Hotel and Bir Al Azab in Sana'a
Our branch offices are located in Sana'a on Zubairi and Hadda Streets, in Hodeidah, Seiyun, Al Mukalla, Aden, Taiz, Ibb, Rada'a, and Al Dhala'a, with small offices in Harad, and Al Wadea'a for trip tickets and Haj and Umra services. Our cargo department is located in our head office on Sitteen Street.
It is important that we address the corporate identity of Universal and branding in the marketplace.
Obviously as Marketing Manager for the group one of my primary objectives is to secure additional accounts both large and small from the local market. For example, there are over 300 non-governmental agencies (NGO)s, along with more than 6 UN agencies in Yemen who are prospective sources of business. While we are on board with many of these organizations, most companies do not realize the variety of services that we offer through our different offices. In the last year 15 new oil companies have been established in Yemen. Then there are the Yemeni companies who are another source of business and who do not know about the services we offer, they think we are just a touring company.
For example, we had a booth at the 6th Yemen International Trade Exhibition at Shumaila this past week. Yemenis were attending to forge new agreements and alliances with the international companies who were participating from 18 countries. Many Yemenis who visited the Universal stand were not aware of our DHL or Hertz service. Yet we maintain 63% of the market in DHL courier services based on recent figures from Al Yemenia on our outbound shipments alone. Theses figures do not include our inbound service on Al Yemenia or our services either inbound or outbound on the other airline carriers for our DHL shipments. So our market share is obviously much greater. On almost any given day there are less than 6 cars available for rent from Hertz. Our existing fleet comprises of 85 vehicles.
We need to get the message out aggressively to all companies and individuals who and what Universal is all about.
Universal established the Business Travel Center in 2000. We are the pioneers in offering corporate travel and the nation's leader in corporate account management. But the outbound market has not been addressed or served well. In fact there are no travel companies in Yemen who have taken this side of the industry seriously. When I was in Saudi Arabia, as an expatriate where I lived and worked for 10 years, I encountered the same problem, with limited choice and bad service.
Therefore, we plan to go after this segment of the market actively, addressing the needs of both the expatriate and Yemeni community in bringing holiday packages of value, but more importantly providing the best service in the industry to our clientele.
Packages will be offered once we have established relationships with ground operators in a variety of countries, thereby offering more than just hotel accommodation and airport transfers to our clients.
The inbound market sadly is affected by the political instability in the region, in particular Iraq. Americans will for the foreseeable future be extremely slow to return to the Middle East as a tourist destination, although Canadians are traveling to Yemen, as are a few diehard Americans who refuse to let terrorism control their lives. The market these days is primarily from Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, Holland and Japan. While the market may be slow, I foresee 2005 to be a good year, assuming we do not have any further problems in the region. In the meantime, we will continue to do what we always have done, market and advertise internationally, and be it two years or five years from now, our name will be in the marketplace and we will reap the benefits. In spite of the political turmoil, we are currently the leader in the inbound market today in Yemen.
Q: Yemen needs a lot of reforms in the tourism sector. What do you think the government should do or not do to promote this important sector?
A: Every government in the world recognizes the importance of tourism to its economy. It is the leading source of employment and income for countries today. I would like to see a percentage of oil revenues slated for the tourism industry for marketing and advertising internationally. A Middle East success case is Oman. Sultan Qaboos has ensured that all remote mountain villages have clinics, schools and a decent track to and from the villages. Road access ensures that farmers can get their produce to market on time. This has come about as a result of tourism and monies have been spent to improve the lives of the people. The Sheikhs in villages are paid to protect the oryx and gazelle so as to preserve the countries wildlife, and as a result tourists pay considerable sums to visit these areas.
Education is critical to the future success of all countries. Whether we like it or not, English is the language that is the common denominator for communication in the world. If we ensure that the youth, who are the future of Yemen, get a good education and speak English, then this will reduce the influx of people to Sana'a in search of employment. The people can be employed locally in their villages in the tourism sector as tour guides, restaurant and hotel staff, and in the development of eco-projects that benefit the community.
In September 2003, there was a symposium entitled “Windows on the Cultural Heritage of Yemen” at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. It was a marvelous success and each day people had to be turned away as the space could not accommodate the numbers that turned out for the event. Any Yemeni would have been proud of this exhibit and his heritage. I feel the government should set aside money for more exhibits of this nature, to be featured throughout the US and throughout the world, showcasing Yemen's heritage.
Since 1989, Universal Touring Company has been the main sponsor and supporter of the Queen of Sheba exhibit, the largest museum exhibit ever organized to focus on the civilization of ancient Yemen which has traveled to many European capitals. It will travel to the United States and Japan in 2005 and 2006 respectively. To date, more than 700,000 visitors throughout Europe have visited this exhibition, and this has contributed to the success of Yemen as a major tourist destination in the Arabian Peninsula.
Q: What about tourism agencies?
A: In the past, when I have been in Yemen on tour with clients, one of the things we like to do is take plastic bags with us when we are hiking in the mountains. We pick up the garbage. Children who see us always want to talk, practice their English, or sell local handmade items. This example is set, and often children will begin picking up the rubbish – sweet papers, water bottles etc. We then give them a plastic bag to fill, which we dispose of in the village in the appropriate garbage cans or where garbage is picked up. It would benefit the country in terms of tourism if a national campaign endorsed by the government to “Keep Yemen Clean” were established. This is the one aspect of tourism tourists complain about when visiting Yemen. Qat chewing, jambiyas, guns, or terrorism are not important issues when clients are visiting Yemen; it is the filth – the plastic bags from qat and water bottles that are found throughout the country. Money slated for a recycling plant for all plastics would be well spent. Tourism agencies should take an active role in encouraging all their clients to “Keep Yemen Clean”.
Q: What are your expectations for the tourism sector in the coming few years. What about Universal in particular?
A: Universal will continue to grow. While inbound tourism is presently affected by the political situation in the region, the Universal group will continue to corner the market and actively increase its share in all sectors.
Q: Do you have new untraditional or unorthodox tourism ideas that you plan to implement?
A: One of the things that concerns me, is that tourism can have a negative affect on a society, and this has been proven in many regions of the world particularly in developing countries. In Yemen, I encounter children in mountain villages begging for pens from tourists. I realize that it is the tourist who has caused this problem. I know that clients always want to bring something to the country they are visiting. They want to help and they think that by bringing pens they are doing well. Instead it causes a problem for those tourists who come after, as those are the tourists who suffer.
All tour operators and travel agencies should ensure that the tourists coming into the country do not give pens to anyone unless they choose to visit a school and in this way give pens and notebooks.
In the past, my clients would visit a school. We would find out who is the best student in English, then we would sponsor one or two thirteen or fourteen year olds for 3 months of computer classes. He learns excel, word and outlook express applications. It is a win-win situation, and this encourages the other children to study their English. This is one idea or suggestion where travel agencies and tour operators could advise incoming clientele on what they can do to help local children and communities. It costs about $40 per student for 3 months of instruction. This would leave a more positive image of the tourist in the community, and the tourist would come away feeling like they really did help. The expatriate community as a way of helping local communities could also implement this.
Q: What should be the priorities of tourism in Yemen (e.g, ecotourism, desert cruising, etc.)?
A: Ecotourism is very important, and particularly to a country like Yemen which has such natural diversity from mountain to desert terrain and areas like Socotra and Al Mahra in the far east of the country. Ecotourism benefits local communities, putting something back into that community and having that community involved in the decision-making and plans for their specific region of the country.
Trekking has not seriously been tapped in Yemen, and this could be developed with local communities. Nepal is a trekker's paradise, and most tourists these days want active soft adventure. Yemen is ideal for this type of tourism. In my opinion, Yemen is the Roof of Arabia. If you picture Nepal and the Himalayas with terraced farming and crystal clear skies, then picture Ireland or Scotland with round stone towers and castle style houses, and you put the two together – you have Yemen. Desert tourism is also extremely important and has not been developed as yet. Using local tribes to take tourists on camel safaris is extremely successful in West Africa and in Morocco, and this could be developed in Yemen in time by recreating the journey of the old frankincense route on camelback. Diving, snorkeling, and deep-sea fishing in the Red Sea and off-shore islands could be developed with the right investment. The government should be actively seeking companies to invest in Yemen's tourist industry as the possibilities are endless where tourism in Yemen is concerned.
Q: What about advertising? Why doesn't Universal start a massive advertising campaign on TV (international networks) and the press? Why not do it in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism and Culture?
A: Internationally we are advertising and marketing in conjunction with the Ministry of Tourism and Culture at trade shows, which is the main source of business for all tour operators. But tourism the world over is suffering these days, and even more so in the Middle East. The Universal Touring Company is actively participating internationally, but it will take time before we reap the benefits. One must recognize that marketing is what makes a company like Universal successful today.
However, if you are willing to give me free advertising space, then you make me very happy. Maybe you could set a precedent whereby I can actively pursue the same from Al Yemenia, the TV networks, Yemen Observer and local radio? A collaboration of this caliber during these lean times would help us, as we will be there for you in the future. It is you who reap the benefits from us when tourism rebounds and the tourist dollar is spent in country.
Q: What about your ambitions concerning the use of the internet? We know that massive numbers of tourists gain do a lot of research online before coming to countries in the Arab world, including Yemen.
A: The internet, and e-mail, is an incredible tool at our disposal that sadly is not utilized to its full capacity in this region. I did not grow up like the children of today, who are computer literate at an extremely young age. Computers have been around for some 20 odd years, and I can understand why those who are of my generation can be somewhat afraid of computers if they have not had the proper training and if they have not been exposed to how powerful a tool it is in the workplace. Frankly, I could not function without computers.
One of the marketing goals is to ensure that all staff are computer literate to a level that increases productivity and that helps sell our products. Training will be implemented for those that need it along with other programs. Our website for the Universal Group will be redone in due course, as it is indeed a very important marketing tool for tourism.
Q: Any other comments you may have?
A: Suffice to say, that I couldn't be happier than to be here living in Yemen and working for Universal. Yemen is my favorite country in the world, and I don't say that lightly as I have traveled to more than 60 countries. I have had a long healthy business relationship with Universal for many years, so it is an easy transition for me as I feel part of the Universal family group. In sha'allah, I will be here until I am old and gray!