Damt: Yemen’s first medical tourism destination [Archives:2007/1059/Reportage]

June 14 2007

By: Fouad Muse'ed
For the Yemen Times

Medical tourism has been known throughout the ages. History books have told about the interest of the Romans and other ancient civilizations in such tourism through their travels to certain destinations for medical purposes.

Although medical tourism comprises only approximately five percent of international tourism, many countries are keen on it due to its relatively high returns, as those tourists seeking medical care stay for a comparatively longer time than regular leisure tourists. With stays lasting from two weeks to a month or more, medical tourists spend at least six times more than others.

Medical tourism relies on natural features such as a fine climate, warm sands and mineral and sulfuric waters. It's equally important to have specialized personnel to help regulate and develop such tourism.

Biological hotels are the most recent fashion in medical tourism wherein a tourist can rejuvenate his or her body and mind. Ecotourism and sports programs with specialized personnel are important here as well. Hotels are certified as such because they commit themselves to high standards of cleanliness and nonpolluting energy sources, together with providing a calm and non-smoking environment.

Medical tourism exists in many parts of the world and has gained momentum over the past few decades. Yemen is among those countries attempting to develop this sector and attract additional numbers of tourists, especially since Yemen is vast and rich in both medical and ecotourism.

“Developing tourism is a prime objective for which the General Authority for Tourism Development was established. It seeks to set the proper conditions to develop Yemeni tourist sites, as well as encourage investment in this regard to help establish Yemen's tourism industry, which will assist the nation's economic progress, giving priority to those areas able to draw more tourists,” explains Mutaher Taqi, chairman of the General Authority for Tourism Development.

Taqi added that his authority has surveyed the entire country to explore such tourist areas across the republic, sorting them according to what type of tourism suits a particular area.

Regarding Damt, Taqi points out that it is a distinct area for medical tourism due to its abundance of mineral water, which complies with international standards. Further, the city has many other features, including fine weather as well as both historical and monumental sites.

Additionally, Damt has relative tourist services and facilities, which are unavailable at other sites. All of these factors have earned the city a good reputation and makes it suitable for those – both inside and outside of Yemen – seeking medical tourism opportunities.

Part of Al-Dhale' governorate, Damt is located 54 km. from Al-Dhale' city and 180 km. from Sana'a. It is divided into two parts by the fertile Wadi Bana and surrounded in all directions by a chain of mountains.

Taqi went on to say that the tourism authority will continue its efforts to make Damt Yemen's first medical tourism site, working to provide it with the basic services qualifying it to be such a place.

The Yemeni state is now working to qualify the area's existing baths in a way befitting international standards, together with creating new opportunities for investors to invest in the city by building integrated medical reserves there.

Yahya Al-Amar, head of Damt's tourism development office, noted some of the medicinal benefits of the area's mineral water either by washing in it or drinking it after feeling cold. He listed several diseases – particularly skin conditions – that can be treated by such mineral water, including diseases of the joints, chronic skin conditions, allergies, inflammations and ulcers.

He added that drinking mineral water after cooling it helps treat chronic poisoning and anemia because the water contains iron, warning that those with hypertension and gastric ulcers should exercise caution before drinking such water.

According to Al-Amar, visitor numbers to Damt are increasing, especially during the peak season from June to August. Visitors come from both inside and outside of Yemen, particularly from neighboring countries, as well as nearby districts.

Fouad Al-Fareh, head of Damt's Culture Office, asserts that Damt has other features besides mineral waters that help attract more visitors and tourists, topped by the Grand volcano-like hole, as well as historical features like Sultan Amer bin Abdulwahab's pride, referencing ancient texts found in the old city of Damt and Damt fort.

However, having said this, Damt still has a long way to go in order to reach its potential, as it is a unique asset of Yemen's tourism industry that has yet to be taken advantage of.

Damt's medical attractions are accompanied by any number of other equally interesting attractions. Tourists may spend time at Damt's natural therapeutic baths, tour the old city and learn more about its heritage or go trekking through the surrounding hillsides and enjoy the scenery.

Another advantage Damt enjoys is its proximity to urban centers like Al-Dhale', Taiz and Aden. In only a couple hours' drive, city dwellers in those places can treat themselves to a weekend getaway at Damt's natural therapeutic baths in order to energize themselves for the following week.

Al-Amar indicated that a large number of weekend visitors are elderly residents from surrounding urban centers and nearby cities. Sometimes accompanied by their families, they come to enjoy Damt's “healing touch” on a frequent basis.

One Damt hotel manager indicated that a large number of visitors come because they've heard a good recommendation from a friend or relative. He added that groups of three or four families sometimes come, booking an entire floor of the hotel.

The same hotel manager believes world of mouth is the best way to market Damt's medical tourism, remarking that the healing that happens to many, especially those with skin diseases, is like magic. He went on to recount the story of a young woman with a strange skin disease that doctors in Sana'a couldn't heal, but she was healed at Damt.

Many Damt residents are blessed by this natural spa in their midst, stating that they're very happy the attraction channels traffic to their locality, in turn providing many of them with employment and business opportunities; however, they fear Damt will suffer if the therapeutic baths dry up.

Two weeks ago, Mohammed Abdurrahman, head of the Al-Dhale' Tourism Office, made it clear that the water level at Damt therapeutic baths is continually decreasing, partially due to random construction and the absence of civil planning.

Although Damt has been declared a tourism and therapeutic reserve, many area locals began building both inside and around the reserve, creating waste and unsanitary conditions, which negatively affect the flow of tourism, aside from other aggressive individuals who began building their homes there and destroying Damt's beautiful image.

A member of Damt's local council has appealed to the Ministry of Tourism to send a team to investigate what's happening at the therapeutic baths, adding that the ministry should be more active in monitoring and regulating Yemen's natural assets.

The tourism office in Al-Dhale' embarked on a cleaning campaign targeting all areas and water basins in Damt, removing approximately three tons of waste; however, the campaign was halted due to shortage of funds.

Admitting the weak role of his office, Abdurrahman attributed such weakness to a shortage of resources, as the office has just two employees coupled with the total absence of material resources to facilitate their tasks.

However, he pointed out that despite this shortage of resources, the office is working on issuing a tourist guide in both Arabic and English, including all of the governorate's tourist sites, as well as establishing a permanent handicrafts exhibition for wood, ceramic and pottery products.

Other difficulties facing investors in Damt include a shortage of water for tourist institutions, repetitive electricity cuts, lack of sanitation services and lack of public parks and gardens.