Travel advice against Yemen in response to media reportage of many attacks against foreign interests, be they diplomatic or oil, has dried up the previously sizeable revenues from the tourism industry which the country used to enjoy.
On this subject, we had an interview with Mr. Aref Al-Mas’oodi, a Director of the International Company for Tourism.
Q: What is your prognosis as to why tourists are no longer coming to Yemen?
A: The main reason is the threat to Al-Qaeda. This is a major cause which has forced foreign companies to stop sending groups of tourists to Yemen – Everyone is afraid.
However there are other reasons. For one, tourism promotion is ineffectual. The Ministry of Tourism should lower fees for tourists in the light of the current situation to prevent the tourism industry grinding to a standstill.
By comparing Yemen with Egypt, the difference is huge. If any tourist incident occurs in Egypt, the following day tourists will flow into Egypt where the authorities are able to maintain security. Tourism promotion is usually then synchronized to make up for the shortfall of guests;, great fee reductions are made by Egyptian airliners, tourist resorts, hotels, restaurants and transportation.
This subsequently encourages tourism agencies to send tourists due to cheap prices. However, in Yemen tourist groups are protected by two armed police cars, which is embarrassingly excessive and undermines efforts to create the right atmosphere for tourism to flourish.
Q: Which regions do tourist most like to visit?
A: From our experience as one of the pioneering travel companies here, we see that the favourite tourism spots are: Old Sana’a (which we call “the open museum”), Shibam Kawaban, Manakhah, Wadi Daw’an, Hadramout Shibam, Hadramout Tarim, Ibb, Al-Mahweet, and Socotra, which is highly requested by tourists.
Q: In light of the current situation, which are the most dangerous regions for tourists?
A: The most dangerous regions are currently closed, such as Marib, Sa’ada and Shaharah; although currently we dispatch tourist groups with security escort to Hadramout and Aden.
Q: Why didn’t you shift tourism to the other provinces which are more secure?
A: We have actually made programs for tourists to visit Sana’a, Shibam Kawkaban, Mahweet, Hajjah, Hodeida, Taiz, Ibb, Aden and Hadramout. These are the regions where we usually organize tours to.
Q: How many tourists that should have visited Yemen?
A: It is hard to give you a number. However, I can give an approximate number. The year 2010 should have had the most tourist attraction where the number of tourists could have been very high. In 2004, Sana’a was the Arab “Capital of Tourism and saw a massive influx of tourists from the rest of the Arab world, as well as from further abroad, such as Asia.
The number of tourists should have exceeded a million tourists in 2010; but in the light of the current situation, tourism has suffered a crisis, not just this year but also since last year due to closure of some regions to which we can’t dispatch tourists. Namely, these regions are Marib, Shaharah, most regions of Hajjah province which is close to Sa’ada province because of the war in Sa’ada.
The more places are closed, the lesser the demand. Most tourists wish to visit archeological sites in Shaharah of Hajjah, Sa’ada, Amran-Marib in Wadi Hadramout. When most of these regions are closed, and when there is a crisis or Al-Qaeda acts, the tourist demand diminishes. Only a few tourists, whom we might call “adventurers”, come to Yemen. Yet, there are some regions which are permanently secure.
Q: What role do you have as a tourist company in attracting tourists?
A: We participate in international tourist exhibitions and whenever we take part in any fairs and exhibitions, we represent Yemen in general and our company in particular. We promote tourism in Yemen which is a country with tourist potential and secure one.
However, it is difficult to talk of security. What happens is the opposite. For example, I was a participant in the Milano Exhibition 2009 and on the third day after our agents held interviews with companies, an explosion took place in Marib. Our credibility suffers because of an unstable security situation and uneven media reportage. Nonetheless, we have to be honest with the agencies we are dealing with.
However, the local and international press blows things out of proportion. Contrary to reality, a simple firework or an accidental event can be exaggerated and considered as a terrorist act or an act related to Al-Qaeda. The media outlets, especially written ones, are supposed to be more objective.
Q: What are the most attracting tourist regions?
A: Socotra Island is a top-notch tourist destination, whose terrain varies between plains, mountains, desert, valleys, rivers, and white coasts. Much of the florae and faunae do not exist elsewhere in the world.
There are tourist programs we conduct for diving in more than one place in the island which is an incredibly popular area for diving. These days there is great tourist activity in the island.
Q: What would you say to businessmen about Socotra Island?
A: I would advise all businessmen in the country, and abroad, and even Yemeni expatriates, especially in Saudi Arabia and Gulf States to seize the opportunity and investment in Socotra Island, a virgin island, and the State will support them. The General Investment Authority is accepting investment proposals in the island at the moment.
Q: Do Arab tourists frequent the island?
A: Of course there are Arab tourists, but generally they don’t come as part of a group, they generally travel with their families, or as individuals. We arrange tourist programs for them, exactly as we do for western tourists and we meet all requests with special prices and promotional programs in more than one place.
Q: Why have you not yet succeeded in attracting tourists from East Asian countries instead of Western ones?
A: This is possible and a great opportunity. The Ministry of Tourism and the Tourism Promotion Council must have an efficient and active role. They must seek opportunities in the whole world, east, west, north and south and they must promote Yemen as a country for tourism with great and promising potential.
Q: If the situation gets settled, what future will tourism have?
A: If the situation in Yemen gets settled we will be able to attract between one million to three million tourists in case of stability, security, tourist promotion, and proper tourist investment.
Q: How do you view Yemen through the tourists’ eyes?
A: the first time tourists arrive to Yemen, they form a sheltered impression about Yemen. After they have finished their tour and program, we ask them about their impression and the hassles they have been through in Yemen. They surprise us when they talk about their great positive impression and say they simply did not expect Yemen to be a tourist friendly and safe country with people holding fast to their culture, heritage and identity. After they visit the place, tourists refute the claims they read in media outlets.
When they go back to their countries they give a positive image about the country and this is a form of indirect promotion, where they talk with their relatives and friends about everything they saw and they too affirm that their media exaggerate things.
With the photos they have taken with their cameras, they show the archeological and historical places, the diversity of customs and traditions, food, costumes. People who see those pictures are resultantly encouraged to visit. Many of the tourists who came to Yemen said that the reason they visited Yemen was their friends who had previously came on a tour here.