SALVAGING TOURISM [Archives:1999/06/Reportage]

February 8 1999

In spite of some limited violence, including kidnappings here and there, Yemen’s tourism industry continued to make slow but steady progress over the last four years. In 1995, the number of tourists who visited Yemen stood at 61,350; in 1996, the number had risen to 74,476; by 1997, it was 84,451; and by 1998, it was 101,341 visitors. If the trend continued, the country was hoping to receive a quarter of million visitors by the early 21st century. 
 In terms of revenue, the annual hard currency earnings from tourists was estimated at US$ 350 million. The government’s share out of this income is a solid 11%. 
In spite of slow growth, and far less than potential performance, the tourism industry was pushing ahead and making visible progress. In fact, some circles were already counting on the tourism industry to replace the shortfall from the oil revenue. 
As 1998 was coming to a close, suddenly there was a disaster. There were several kidnappings leading, for the first time, to the killing of the visitors. The sequence and pace of repetition is very telling. 
1- On December 6th, 1998, 4 German tourists were kidnapped by Bani Dhabyan in Marib Governorate. 
2- On December 28th, 16 American, Australian and British tourists were kidnapped in Moudiya, Abyan Governorate. 
3- On January 9th, 1999, a failed attempt to kidnap two Italian tourists in Sanaa City. 
4- On January 9th, John Brooke, a British national working for Haliburton, was kidnapped in Marib Governorate. 
5- On January 10th, there was a failed attempt to kidnap two American tourists in Seiyoun, Hadhramaut Governorate. 
6- On January 17th, 1999, four Dutch and 2 Britons were kidnapped in Sa’adah Governorate. 
7- On January 26th, 3 Germans were kidnapped in Amran Governorate. 
8- On January 27th, a UK national was kidnapped in Marib Governorate. 
In summary, over the last two months, there were eight incidents involving 35 foreigners in six governorates. The picture is distressing indeed as one Western country after another of warned their nationals against travelling to Yemen. 
In earlier times, Yemen’s kidnapping of tourists was taken lightly. In fact, some travel agencies were talking of adventure tourism, and many visitors joked about arranging to be kidnapped in some of the remote tribal regions in order to have access to some ancient sites which are off-limits. There were no accidents. A few days of forced hospitality was a change much appreciated by the tourists who are often people caught in the rat race of city life. 
Then came Abyan. This incident was different in more than one way. The motives were political, the instructions came from outside, and the tactics were violent. 
In that incident, four foreigners and five Yemenis were killed. That incident also opened a Pandora’s box for the Yemeni authorities. They suddenly woke up to the menace of religion-based extremism which is part of an international network of terrorism apparently headquartered in the UK. That was the beginning of a visible and sustained deterioration in the bilateral relations between Yemen and the UK. 
Relations between Yemen and the UK are as strained as they can be. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is expected to lend his good offices in trying to mend the rupture. At least, as a friend to both countries, he will try to contain the deterioration by asking for restraint. 
The media, by bringing everything into the open, has not helped. The reason is that as more information is made available to the public, both government were looking for some place to throw the blame. 

The British Government started the bitter recrimination by over-reacting to Yemen’s botched-up operation to free the hostages. It made a lot of fuss about not being consulted by the Yemeni authorities before taking decision to use force to liberate the hostages. Yemeni officials said that their decision was an internal matter. The presence of a Scotland Yard team in Yemen added to the irritation of the Yemeni authorities. 
Then came the turn of the Yemeni Government to point the finger at the British Government. As more information became available on the activities of extremist elements based in the UK, the authorities in Sanaa started painting the UK as a hub for extremism directed at Muslim countries. Further revelations of false documents from UK circles further strengthened the Yemeni resolve to put more blame on London. 
Over the last few weeks, there were many steps to shore up the tourism industry in the country. 
First and foremost among these are the enhanced commitment of the authorities to increase safety and security in the country. The President has chaired two meetings – one military/security in nature, and the second civilian. Both addressed the security issue. 
Then the government enacted the law for the establishment of the Tourism Promotion Board (TPB). This organ brings together the government, business, media and NGOs. It is to be jointly financed and managed. 
The TPB held its first meeting on February 2nd, 1999, and elected a 14-person steering committee or secretariat as follows: 
1. Minister of Tourism and Culture: 
2. Mr. Abdul-Karim Abu Taleb – YATA: 
Vice Chairman; 
3. Deputy Minister of Tourism: 
4. Chairman of Tourism General Authority: 
5. Vice Chairman of TGA: 
6. Deputy Chairman of TGA: 
7. Chairman of Yemen Airlines: 
8. Prof. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf – Yemen Times: 
9. Yahia Mohammed Abdullah Saleh – 
Tour Operators Association: Member; 
10. Alwan Saeed Shaibani – UNIVERSAL 
11. Fadeel Wehbe – Sheraton Sanaa Hotel: 
12. Zain Hajjaji – Taj Sheba Hotel: 
13. Mohammed Abdo Shaibani – 
Shaibani Restaurants – Member 
14. Abdul-Malik Al-Sindi: 
Executive Director and Member 
The General Secretariat of the TPB held its first meeting on Thursday, February 4th, and made the following decisions: 
1. To invigorate Yemen’s participation in the BIT Milano Fair to be held during 26/2-2/3/1999. A committee headed by Mr. Alwan Shaibani was formed to finalize arrangements for this purpose. 
2. To confirm and bolster Yemen’s participation in the ITB Berlin Fair to be held during 6-11/3/1999. A committee headed by Mr. Abdul-Karim Abu Taleb was formed to finalize arrangements for this purpose. 
3. To confirm and bolster Yemen’s participation in the Paris Exhibition to be held during 18-24/3/1999. A committee headed by Mr. Sadek Al-Sa’ar was formed to finalize arrangements. 
4. To confirm Yemen’s participation in the one-month Dubai Shopping Festival that starts on March 18th. Arrangements towards that end will be headed by Abdul-Malik Al-Sindi. 
The General Secretariat also requested that Professor Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf, who is already on a mission to Cairo, discuss with Egyptian authorities their experience in limiting the fall-out on the tourist industry from terrorist violence. Arrangements have been made to hold meetings with the Minister of Tourism and other Egyptian officials. A blue-print for Yemeni actions and steps are expected to come out from reading the Egyptian experience. 
At another level, Professor Al-Saqqaf has been charged with the job linking up with the world media regarding the security situation in Yemen. To help in this effort, consultants from Britain, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands will soon be contracted. 
A fund was established to promote tourism and to finance efforts towards that end. New sources to finance the fund include the following: 
1. A committee was formed to weed out free riders in the tourism industry. This refers mainly to some tour operators who are not licensed by the authorities. Abdul-Rahman Mahyoub, Chairman of the Tourism General Authority, was named as chairman of this committee. Within a few days, he is expected to present the General Secretariat of the TPB with an assessment report on the overall picture of the tour operators business. 
This is expected to generate new funds. 
2. Another source is the increased commitment by the private sector to invest in the promotion of tourism. Towards this end, all companies directly linked to tourism are asked to make a minimum allocation towards a Fund established for the promotion of this industry. 
3. The government has agreed to make an initial contribution of YR 20 million to the Fund. 
A World Bank team that was visiting Yemen last week, and which traditionally financed efforts to preserve old/historic cities, showed interest in the re-structuring and re-invigorating of the tourism industry. Though previously not involved in tourism per se, the World Bank team expressed an interest in exploring financing development projects in this sector. 
Important Players Talk About the Situation & Future Plans 
Three key players in the tourism sector spoke to the Yemen Times about the tourism industry. They reflected on the present predicament, and the steps that need to be taken to protect the industry. 
1. Mr. Abdul-Malek Mansour, Minister of Culture & Tourism: 
Tourism faces a distressing predicament today. The country is subjected to a well-planned disinformation campaign. You can see the meanness of some of the articles immediately. 
I believe that the tourism sector can overcome the fallout from the anti-Yemen informational barrage. The life-span of lies is short. We plan to provide accurate and full information on the situation to the world. 
Now that the Tourism Promotion Board (TPB) law has been issued, we can say that we have started the process of overcoming the problem from the theoretical point of view. The Board has already taken many corrective steps, and I think we are starting on a sound footing to redress the problems. 
The majority of the board members are from the private sector. This means that the private sector will have a greater say in the decisions of the TPB. This is also true of the General Secretariat which is the steering committee for all our efforts. 
One issue that is of maximum concern is security. I believe that security and defense systems need to be enhanced to play a greater role in preventing violence. It is not enough that the criminals in the recent events have been caught. We need the capability to stop such crimes before they take place. 
I am optimistic that the security and defense systems will be up to the responsibility they shoulder in protecting the tourist industry and the nation. 
We are in close contact with other countries who face the same threats. We are getting information from Egypt and other countries regarding the problem and how they have handled the solutions. We will, of course, apply some of these only in as far as they are relevant to our situation. 
We have approved the tourism promotion plans for 1999. Yemen will produce films, books, brochures, maps and other relevant material in five languages – English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. 
2. Mr. Abdullah Al-Mutarrib is the Marketing Manager at Yemenia (Yemen Airlines): 
The national carrier has doubly suffered. It carried the brunt of the fallout, and it must now lead in carrying the expenses of the promotion plans. But this we willingly do because we are an integral part of the tourism industry. Actually, we used to do most of the promotion on our own for a long time. 
It is important that all members of the Yemeni society realize the gravity of the situation. The tourism industry has been hit hard. Many companies are losing money, and some have already gone under. Some officials do not realize that this sector touches on many sub-sectors like airlines, tour operators, ticketing agencies, hotels, restaurants, transportation, museums, artisan and folklore products, etc. Even beyond the directly-affected businesses, tourists add to the local demand for all goods and services, thus impacting the whole economy. 
Yemenia will continue to work with all sides in order to protect Yemen and the tourism industry. We will participate in all the fairs and exhibitions, and will join in the promotion efforts. 
We ask the authorities, in return, to consider some measures that will alleviate the burdens of the airline. These include correcting the tariff rates, adjusting the price of jet fuel, and the removal of discounts for government-financed tickets. In addition, it would help our cash flows if the authorities paid up accumulated debt. 
We are waiting for the state to come up with an official plan to restore to the government its dignity and prestige. This plan must also give guarantees to foreign investors and foreign tour companies. It ought to show that Yemen is secure, safe, stable, and peaceful for businesses. Otherwise, all foreign and local investors including Yemenia’s will be held back. If this happens, we will not be able to modernize our fleet and cover destinations in Europe. 
All investments will be lost if the government does not take a firm decision to protect tourists, and ensure their security and safety. European and insurance companies now prohibit many of their clients and tourists from coming to Yemen. They advise their clients not to risk coming to Yemen. 
Finally, let me say that I am grateful for the new spirit that now permeates our work. I am sure with the dominant role of the private sector and the media in our new organs, we will address issues in a new light. This will also make it easy to mobilize world expertise in our 1999 plans. 
3. Mr. Alwan Saeed Shaibani, Chairman UNIVERSAL Group of Companies 
We are losing money on a daily basis. Unfortunately, our group has business in all the sub-sectors of the travel industry – airlines, hotels, tour operating, car leasing, etc. It is not a secret that we have closed down one of our companies, and we are considering closing down another. A lot of other tourist companies also face imminent bankruptcy, because of the present situation. 
We have to be sure that the government is genuine in its intention to do something tangible to protect the industry. Sometimes, we are not so sure. We do not know if the government is acting on political expediency or it is genuine and candid in its support for the sector. 
In my opinion, there are two jobs the state can do. These are providing adequate level of security, and clean our cities. The volume of garbage that accumulates in our streets is shameful. 
The Supreme Tourism Council is said to be considering a lot of solutions for the problems. But till now, we have not seen any tangible action. We have heard many promises. 
We continue to face terrible problems. But the Universal Group will of course do all that is necessary so that the sector can come back to life. 
By: Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf, Jamal Al-Awadhi, and Ghassan Al-Ahdal – Yemen Times.