To successfully promote tourism; We Have to Fight Terrorists,  Abductors, Garbage and Dogs [Archives:1999/15/Business & Economy]

April 12 1999

Maria Hardwick, a Tourist Guide from Australia, and a very well known name in the world of clothes and fashion in Australia, was in Yemen again last week.
When she first heard of Yemen, she had an average tourist’s drive. It was innocent curiosity to see a new place, a different people and their culture. It never crossed her mind that she would be inffatuated with Yemen to the extent of defying her government’s ban and warnings. She never thought she would become a tourist promoter. Her love for Yemen and Yemenis changed her life, as she says in this interview with Yemen Times.
Q: When did you first visit Yemen?
A: I visited Yemen five years ago. I had travelled a lot before Yemen, but this place really left a strong impression with me. So when I returned to Australia, I went through a series of different options, and ultimately became involved in promoting tourism to Yemen.
That was a change. My background is in the fashion industry, as I have had a very successful fashion business for over 20 years in my country. Australians travel a great deal and I feel there is a good future for tourism to Yemen.
Given the potential, my marketing abilities make me feel that there is a rich potential here.
Q: How far have you come?
A: It took a while for take-off. I brought my first batch of visitors to Yemen last year, in October-November. The long lead period was due to lack of knowledge and lack of material on Yemen.
Q: How many people in that group?
A: Fifteen people. I call this the boutique approach to travel. The reason is simple. You have to have a good mix between the number and quality of people in the group.
Usually, the people who come here are a particular type of tourists, those who have traveled a lot in other places but want to come to Yemen for its unique characteristics. Jacque Herbert, a French writer who wrote a book about Yemen, genuinely believes that Yemen has some unique characteristics that you cannot find anywhere else. I believe the same. I don’t really promote tourism for commercial interests, it is something I do because I have a passion for this place. I feel a great deal of affection for Yemen. So I enjoy what I am doing because it is something that comes from my heart.
Q: Would you not say that the Abyan events have interrupted your efforts?
A: Yes, we were very dismayed by the event that happened at the end of last year . There was a great deal of negative publicity and enormous media coverage in Austrialia on this sad incident. That was a huge setback for any person promoting Yemen. Any potential visitor from Australia was put off because there was an Australian killed. It is very difficult to change people’s mind about that sort of publicity. So it makes my job almost impossible as no Australian tourists will agree to come here at the moment.
As I said Australians do travel a lot, but there are many places in the world to choose from. If there is a black mark on a country’s safety record, it will simply be taken off the travel map.
Q: Is the negative impact to last year’s tragic events beginning to change?
A: No, not yet. No one is willing to come here, as yet. When I started off on this trip only one month ago, people thought I was foolish to come here. In fact, my husband said that I wanted to be kidnapped and that’s why I was coming to Yemen.
Of course that is all exaggerated.
Q: What attracts you to Yemen?
A: I like this place very much, especially the old city of Sanaa. Living in the old city is a completely different experience for any Westerner. The contrast is so strong. Life here is simpler and slower and there are no distractions. There are a lot of nice aspects of Yemeni life, though it would probably be difficult for the Yemenis to understand what it is that appeals to us in coming here.
We in the West have almost gone the complete circle. We feel the pressures and distractions of the a modern life style which has come at the expense of the traditional values. Here in Yemen, we are able to go back to the values of a traditional culture. When I first came here, I was able to compare our culture to yours. I was struck by the simplicity of your lifestyle and your culture in general.
In Yemen, you don’t have to make decisions for every single minute of the day, as is the case for us back home. This pressure actually becomes a burden on us. It is very wearying. Life for us has become too complex, and too demanding. The rat race of keeping up makes us miss living our life.
So I come to a place like this, especially the old town of Sanaa. Its charm, harmony and simplicity is attractive. I know what my day will be, the prayer calls give it a rhythm and structure.
Q: Are you saying you feel safer in Yemen?
A: No, and that’s not the point. I am talking about how fully you live.
When I first came here, I found myself curious and nervous. Then, this place became familiar and I felt affection for it. So, I came back, even with the bad publicity we received. People in the West are very negative about the Middle East any how. I underestimated this negativism when I embarked on this business. The negativity you have before you begin, for the whole region, is just a blanket. So if you add this disaster to it, and the amount of the incredible coverage we had on the sad event, you can imagine how difficult it is to promote tourism to Yemen.
Q: The passion you have for Yemen, is it just for the Old City of Sanaa or for the whole country?
A: The whole country. As a tourist, you talk about Yemen as a relatively small area which offers an amazing diversity. You can speak about the mountain villages, or about the souqs, or the beaches, or the history, etc., all are very spectacular. Every day during the usual two weeks around the country tour, tourists see something different.
It is enthralling for someone just landing here. Nature is very dramatic, and the people are very nice, and don’t forget the beautiful architecture.
Q: We talked about things you liked, tell us about the things you didn’t like about Yemen?
A: It is mostly the garbage. You know we in our societies have been so successfully indoctrinated against garbage. We wouldn’t even drop one small piece of garbage out of the window, we would get fined and there is constantly a huge public awareness campaign. So what I am highly sensitive to in Yemen is the out-of-control garbage. Obviously, the people here are less sensitive to it, but I’m giving a perspective of people who come to this country. I hear tourists often say ‘What a great shame that this beautiful place, especially the old city, should be so littered with garbage’. I think that the place could be so much more enhanced if more attention is paid to cleanliness.
The other issue is partly related to the first problem. It is the problem of stray dogs. You know that tourists like to walk, especially in the old city because it is wonderful. Therefore, people’s first impressions, which are always strong, are important. What inevitably happens is that you come across stray dogs. The stray dogs are not pets, and they can be harmful.
In addition, they sleep all day and they make such annoying barking at night! In the old Sanaa city, you can’t get a good night’s sleep because of barking dogs. This is hard to stand, especially when you are tired or exhausted.
Q: What is next?
A: For me, the next step is clear. I will go back to Australia and work on cinvincing more people to come. I have already rented a house in the Old City of Sanaa, which will be my base for work. It is also going to be my home when I come back.
By: Hatem Bamehriz
Yemen Times