Hope for the tourism sector [Archives:2004/756/Community]

July 19 2004

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

The Yemeni government recently made a move that might help boost the tourism industry in the future. Effective at the beginning of this month, travelers from over 30 countries – including nations in Europe, North America, the Far East and the Gulf – can now get a visa entering Yemen at Sana'a International Airport or other places of entry.
“This was a good step taken by the government,” said Brid Beeler, Marketing Manager at Universal Group. “It shows that the government feels more confident about security.”
Since the war on terror began after attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, the government has placed a number of restrictions on tourists. To visit Yemen, for example, travelers needed to join a tourist group or come for business and get a visa at embassies abroad. The new change will make it easier for visitors to come and might encourage them to tour the country.
The government also considers making it easier for foreigners to get around inside the country. To visit a number of areas, tourists must get permission, are escorted by Yemeni police and are stopped at many checkpoints along the way.
According to Taha Al-Mahbashi, executive director at the Tourism Promotion Board, tight security for foreigners can backfire on the way they view Yemen.
“We surveyed 150 tourists, and they commented that they don't feel safe with so many checkpoints and escorts,” said Al-Mahbashi. “They feel that there is danger, and the fear among tourists goes up instead of down.”
Al-Mahbashi said that the Tourism Promotion Board is trying to encourage the government to do away with tourists having to gain permission to travel to certain areas, reduce the number of checkpoints and replace escorts with police cars patrolling the highways. This would “make is easier for tourists to travel anywhere, especially going to tourist attractions,” said Al-Mahbashi.
“If it became easier for me to tour the country, it would definitely encourage me to travel around the country and visit more places in Yemen,” said Shane Nahumko, an English teacher who has lived in Yemen for three months. “As it stands now, it's difficult to get out of Sana'a and see the rest of this fascinating country.”
Since Yemen joined the United States on the war on terror two-and-a-half years ago, it has improved national security. Hundreds of suspected terrorists have been rounded up, including key Al-Qaeda members. Tribal leaders in vast rural areas have worked with the government to make sure terrorists are not welcome. For years, Yemen was pictured as a country where foreigners could easily be kidnapped by tribesmen. But it has been nearly three years since the last kidnapping took place.
“The government had good reason to protect tourists,” said Al-Mahbashi. “But I believe that in the last three years, the government has done an excellent job and security in Yemen has improved dramatically.”
Many people involved in the tourism business believe that Yemen has an edge to compete in the Middle East market.
“This is the country suited for the clientele genuinely interested in the Middle East,” said Beeler. “Many have not visited the Gulf, and if they have been to the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain, they might as well have visited the West. Yemen is not westernized, and it is so rich in terms of mountains, the desert, the castles and round towers, archeological sites and historical aspects. It has fascinating attractions and the culture is still intact. No country in the Middle East is as rich as Yemen.”
But Yemen's tourism sector has faced a number of setbacks in recent years. The attacks of September 11, the bombing of the French tanker Limburg in 2002 and the US invasion in Iraq the following year caused tourists to be reluctant to come. A number of tourist agencies have reported this month that large numbers of foreigners that planned to visit Yemen have cancelled their trips due to the clashes between Shiite militants and government forces in the Saada province that started on June 18. The recent terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia have also raised fear of traveling to the Gulf region.
“Yemen is losing a lot of tourists. People think Yemen is dangerous because of the fighting in the north,” said Abdulla bin Barek, sales manager at Ashtal Travel and Tourism. “The whole tourism industry is losing a lot of money right now. Hotels, restaurants and taxi drivers are suffering as well.”
Travel warnings from other countries have also been seen as having a negative effect on tourism. Last May, the United States issued a warning that said US citizens that plan to travel to Yemen should “consider carefully the risks of travel to Yemen.”
“It is important that the Yemeni government deals with the embassies of other countries that issue travel warnings,” said Al-Mahbashi. “It is a very big problem.”
But changing the way visas are issued to make it easier for tourists to visit Yemen may be the beginning of the government stepping in to help the ailing industry.
“It was good to see some changes,” said a representative from a local tourist agency. “If we see more changes in the future, we might see some growth in tourism.”