Walid Haidar: “Yemeni tourism lacks good quality services” [Archives:2007/1044/Reportage]

April 23 2007
Walid Haidar: Yemen has a lot of potential.
Walid Haidar: Yemen has a lot of potential.
Walid Haidar first came to Yemen as a member of a team of journalists affiliated to Arabian Travel, which was sent to Yemen in order to make a Documentary about Yemen's tourism attractions. The team arrived to Yemen in the beginning of last March, and had several ups and downs during their journey. YemenTimes had the pleasure to Interview the Team's leader, Journalist Qalid Haidar, the Tourism Editor at the Channel.

Interviewed by Saddam Al-Ashmouri [email protected]

After visiting Yemen, what is your assessment of its tourism environment?

Some people believe that Yemeni tourism rests upon a group of heritage sites which help it to attract foreign visitors. However, tourism actually involves a group of interrelated components, beginning with airlines, airports, roads, telecommunication services and buses, coupled with organization and the thorough implementation of tourist programs.

If we are to consider all of these components however, we find that Yemen's tourism environment doesn't yet qualify as a real tourist industry because its environment is merely historical, which has the ability to attract visitors only once, something which is a real problem. When tourists return home, they then encourage their friends to visit the country which they have visited.

What are the obstacles facing tourists in Yemen?

Such obstacles are initially represented by its small airport, slow entry procedures and the small number of passport officers. Within Yemen, there's no specific system regulating the services of taxi. Additionally, the initial scenes when coming from the airport into the city centre do not help to boost tourism or tourist services. Roads are narrow and unclean, and hotels are neither tidy nor organized.

Regarding Yemeni people, we find that they're hospitable and cooperative, but those who deal with tourists out of greed and a desire to exploit foreign visitors harm the future of tourism in Yemen.

There's a need to increase public awareness about tourism, but in general, Yemen lacks organized tourist services, as well as convenient sites for such services. We found that some individuals impose certain sums of money on tourists to pay for entering tourist sites, a situation to which the police can't a solution.

The other problem we faced was that of eating our meals outside of the hotels at which we stayed, as there are no good restaurants in the hotels. Even if there are various popular menus, they should be served in convenient places, either in Sana'a, Marib or other important cities.

While touring Yemen, we were accompanied by a female friend, who never ate a single meal, even though we went to the best restaurants in Sana'a. Finally, we took her to a pizza restaurant where the meal was served on a rusty plate.

As Tourism Editor at Arabian Travel, do you find the actual tourism experience in compliance with what's being promoted?

For me, visiting Yemen was a dream. Without exaggerating, Yemen was one of the few countries that I've been really eager to visit. I expected to find the most beautiful historic sites in the world, thanks to the cultural heritage Yemen enjoys. I visited Yemen's web site and read things that made me enthusiastic to visit this country. I read all of this wonderful information and printed off more than 300 pages about Yemen, its history and tourist sites.

I had a desire to extend my visit for longer than was planned and I agreed with the director and those in charge of about this; I wanted to tell Arab viewers that Yemen has much more to offer than they might expect, aside from its tourist treasures. Frankly, I came to Yemen with another aim, which was to advise others against visiting it; however, I didn't say this because I value and respect Yemen and its people. By the end of the visit, I apologized to Yemeni citizens, not their government, for not completing my planned television program.

Why did you apologize for not completing it and what's required in order to do so?

I apologized because the program's idea was based on providing tourist services in various areas of the country. When I found that there were no tourist services, I realized that the serials would merely convey a bad impression of Yemen. This isn't the goal of our program, which is based on objectively assessing Yemen's tourism situation.

For example, is it possible for one to find an international airport anywhere in the world without water in its bathrooms? When I used one of Sana'a airport's toilets, I found it very old and in poor condition.

I would like to say something, and I hope no one will be angry with me. During my visit to Yemen, which coincided with commemorating the passage of 40 days since the death of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, along with dozens of people who were invited to the event and stayed with us at the same hotel, I remarked that an awful lot of money was being spent on the commemoration.

Why wasn't this money spent on improving the conditions of the airport's toilets, as well as paving the road leading to Marib Dam, which is one of Yemen's most important historical tourist sites? And there are other bad roads too, such as the one linking Sana'a and Dar Al-Hajar.

What is your advice for foreign tourists visiting Yemen?

I would tell them not to expect much from the country, although they should view Yemen as a beloved and important part of the Arab world. Tourists expect high-class tourism services. I advise them to visit Yemen's ancient and historical ruins within the minimum time required.

Is Yemen rich in tourist sites and if exploited well, will such sites help Yemen towards a state in which they can rely on tourism as a main source of revenue, as some other countries do?

Tourism is a treasure and all nations move towards such attaining such treasure. Even the oil-rich Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, are beginning to think about tourism and concentrate on it as an alternative income source to oil.

Yemen has been progressing slowly; however, tourism is supposed to be its main income source. It's important that Yemen allocates a significant budget to develop investment by establishing a national project to include various organizations and individuals.

Additionally, Yemen should establish another national project regarding its future and allow its citizens to play an integral role in increasing tourism awareness, as well as to train local staff to work in hotels and tourism agencies. In the hotel where I stayed, I discovered that employees were from Morocco, Lebanon and other Arab countries.

Of course, Yemen is rich in tourist attractions and sites, not only antiquities. The Yemeni government can establish tourist resorts atop mountains and in the deserts and boost desert activities because the desert is the biggest factor attracting foreign visitors. Just as Arab tourists appreciate Europe's snowy mountains, foreign visitors will appreciate Yemen's desert scenes.

The potential ideas are innumerable and Yemen can plan to develop its tourism capabilities with the help of foreign experts, who can specify exactly what European, Japanese and Chinese tourists want. In light of these requirements, the Yemeni government can then establish a tourist base and not depend solely on the Old City of Sana'a and other historic sites. As tourism has changed worldwide, Yemen should cope with any developments in the tourism sector.

Did those parties concerned with tourism help you while you were in Yemen?

The media advisor at the Yemeni Embassy in Abu Dhabi invited me to visit Yemen, instructing me to pay for the airline ticket. However, because we work for the media, we receive free tickets, so I waited for a free ticket and this delayed my visit to Yemen. I tried hard to persuade my media institution to pay for the ticket, but that didn't happen, so I seized the opportunity to visit Yemen as part of the tourist editor's program because they pay the costs of flights and accommodation.

Despite numerous objections to my trip, I decided to visit Yemen under the pretext that I would be witnessing real tourism, as I expected, so I insisted on visiting Yemen. At the very beginning, I was shocked to find that visitor visas are required in Yemen; however, such visas aren't required in other countries like Syria and Jordan.

Additionally, Gulf Cooperation Council countries provide visitor visas at the airport for any foreigners visiting in their territories in order to encourage them to visit tourist sites and attractions.

Did concerned parties authorize a guide for you?

Someone from the Ministry of Information was authorized to accompany us while photographing several sites and attractions, keeping with him a photography license and requesting we not take any photos unless he was present. We were warned against taking photos without this man, who usually kept the license with him.

That may happen in other countries, but what we had never seen was that this man asked us to pay him $40 per day, saying that this was normal and official. When we asked his boss about it, he told us that all television channels that come here pay the same. Additionally, we were asked to pay for this man's accommodation while outside Sana'a, something which we considered strange as well.

The concerned parties didn't provide us with a tourism manual and neither the ministries of information nor tourism offer visitors tourism manuals. Those tourist manuals available in the markets are written in English and visitors must buy them if needed. We also didn't find any tourist maps in Yemen.

There are reports that the number of tourists visiting Yemen has increased by 50 percent. What do you think of this statement?

Above all, what is the number of tourists visiting Yemen and what's the annual increase? How many tourists visit Yemen again and what are the services Yemen offers foreign tourists in order to promote its tourism? How much is the tourist spending and what are the annual returns from tourism? These scores are very important, but one figure doesn't necessarily reflect the actual level of tourism.

Yemeni media personnel should be specialized in tourism in order to observe and discuss the matter with the source who declared this 50 percent increase in the number of tourists to Yemen. I don't believe the score is authentic, and if it exists, it doesn't reflect the true atmosphere of the Yemeni tourism industry.

Those in charge of tourism in the Arab world should quit making such statements about unauthentic scores unless they're very sure of their authenticity. Those in charge of tourism in Yemen must say honestly that their country's tourism industry requires at least five years of hard work. They need to establish a well-studied plan and then start implementing it in real-life situations.

In your opinion, what are the shortcomings of Yemen's tourism industry?

Those in charge of tourism in Yemen constitute its main shortcomings – either the minister of tourism or the manager of the tourism promotion board. Undoubtedly, tourism requires joint efforts and cooperation between the concerned parties, but tourism officials must be the first ones responsible for implementing relevant plans.

I've seen Yemen's wings at international exhibitions promoting tourism, but I've remarked that such promotion must be in line with the tourism sector's true development; otherwise, such efforts and funds are wasted randomly without any benefit gained.

How it is possible to promote or merchandize a commodity that needs developing? If I was a tourism official in Yemen, I'd suspend Yemen's participation in the international tourism promotion exhibition for at least three years and all of that saved money could be spent on rehabilitating airports and improve the level of services.

Additionally, concerned authorities must print tourist manuals and maps and train local staff on how to provide top-quality services to foreign visitors.

Do you have any final comments?

Yemen must pay closer attention to tourism in order to improve its ailing economy through tourism and I advise those officials in charge of tourism to bear in mind that it's their country that will benefit from offering good-quality services, not the visitors.