by JACK JACKSON
In the 18 years I have been taking groups to Yemen, I have seen many changes. In the early days permission was required to go anywhere outside of Sanaa. Asphalt roads were rare and modern hotels non existent. On the plus side Marib was littered with inscriptions and carvings that have since disappeared, whilst the local tribesmen zealously guarded the sites and showed us more than is shown to tourists by their guides today.
Nowadays things are very different. The two Yemens are unified; in the north there are good hotels in Sana’a, Hodeida, Marib and Hajja and usable ones in Taiz and Sadab. In the south there are good hotels in Aden, a usable one in Seiyun and questionable ones in Mukalla. Good asphalt roads abound in the north but the south is more limited, with long distances between sites on old asphalt roads that are breaking up. For softer tourists, both Aden and Seiyun are served by flights from Sana’a.
New asphalt roads now reach the main sites at Barrakesh, Marib, Al Janad and Jibla and join the north to the south from Al Bayda to Lawdar and from Hamam Damt through to Aden. Main and Al Jawf are still off limits for tribal reasons and there are occasional tribal problems around Bani Hosheish, Marib, Sadab, Mahwit and across the Rub al Khali.
Sadly it is now difficult for non-Muslims to enter most mosques. Tourists themselves are to blame, cameras are pointed at men praying, women walk in front of men who have already washed to pray and an Italian magazine published a picture of improperly dressed women, standing at the Mibrab of the Ashraffiya mosque, in Taiz.
Another problem of tourists own making is children hassling for pens, sweets or money and stoning those who refuse. Walking around towns is now best accomplished of a morning when most of the children are at school.
A major problem for English speaking tourists is the absence of good guidebooks. The Lonely Planet guide is hopeless, the author mainly travelled by buses, so he failed to reach many of the sites. The Insight guide is better, hut it still has many mistakes. In Sana’a there is a small, government sponsored guidebook entitled New Travellers Guide to the Yemen", by Fritz Piepenburg. Published in several European languages, this is the book on which all others are based. It also has some mistakes.
There are better guidebooks available in French and German. All the English publishers that I have approached, claim that the market is too small for a good guidebook in English.
Local guides’ are rarely Yemenis, but other nationalities being used for their foreign language abilities. Their local knowledge is often less than that of a well read visitor.
Yemen is an expensive country for tourism, so most of the visiting tourists are not energetic and rarely have a fervent interest. So it is not surprising that the guides get used to this sort of client and take easy options. As anywhere else in the world, guides rely on tips from satisfied clients so they fail to inform tourists when they are improperly dressed and likely to offend local feelings. Awkward questions or those to which they do not know the answer, are likely to be answered with a statement that they think you would like to hear, not necessarily the correct one.
Most tours do the standard circuit of Sana’a - Taiz - Hodeida and Marib because hotels are available and all the route is asphalt road. The bare trip can be accomplished by bus.
Some German tours go further afield but still get back to these hotels at night. This means very long days, up at 0600 hours and arriving at a hotel at 2100 hours or later.
The south can be covered by flying from Sana’a to Aden or Seiyun. Then by road between Mukalla and Seiyun, arriving very late at night, and by road between Aden and Mukalla also arriving very late at night. There are good roads from Aden to Taiz, or direct to Sana’a.
You can hire four wheel drive vehicles in Sana’a, but I would not recommend that you travel to outlying areas alone. It is best to have an Arab Yemeni with you in any tribal area, non Arab Yemenis e.g. naturalized Ethiopian interpreters, will often be looked down upon.
Details of the main tourist venues can be gleaned from tourist brochures but never believe them implicitly. There are not any hotels near Mokha. The only rural markets worth specifically attending are at Bait Al Faqih (Friday) and Jarrahi (Tuesday), you must go in the morning of the correct day. Most Yemeni printed booklets contain incorrectly captioned pictures.
Less common sites may involve camping or fondouks and often four wheel drive vehicles and some rough walking will be required. Interesting areas available to the more adventurous include:
South of Yarim, dirt tracks go east to Zefar, the ancient Himyarite capital. Little of the city walls remain, but there are ancient caves and cisterns and the walls of houses contain inscriptions and carvings of flowers, bulls heads and Ibex heads. There is a small museum in the village and inscriptions on the walls of mosques in surrounding villages but the local people do not like you photographing these.
From Dhamar three hours drive east on bad tracks takes you to the ancient irrigation system at Baynun. Here a tunnel nearly three metres high and two metres across is cut through the mountain, there are several inscriptions. Across the valley another tunnel was abandoned half finished.
Just south of Huth is the turn off west (two hours of rough tracks) to Al Garbey, where you pass into the hands of the local Mafia for the trip up to Shahara bridge. En route the Sunday Market at Souk Al Awad has guns, hand grenades and rocket launchers on sale.
You can trek up to Shahara but in the sun, five hours up and five hours down, is too much for many people and on the lower slopes schoolchildren throw stones down onto tourists.
Nowadays I take the local trucks at extortionate cost, two thirds of the way up, trek up through the second city gate, through Shahara, across the bridge and down through the first city gate to pick up the trucks again to descend. This avoids staying overnight in the poor fondouk, (I camp at Al Garbey) and you see the bridge in sunlight. Most tourists are driven up in the late afternoon, stay the night in the fondouk and return in the early morning, having only seen the bridge in mist.
The track up to Shahara is constantly being improved, but it is difficult. Expect delays for landslides and you may have to cross landslides on foot and pick up another truck on the other side. The trucks are old, with bald tyres, this is not for the faint hearted!
There are three land routes across the Rub al Khali from Marib to Seiyun. A fast flat route runs to the north, ten hours with little to see. The central route goes through the dunes, two days, beautiful scenery but missing Timna. And the southern route through Harib,. then across dunes to
Timna, asphalt road on to Ataq, then back into the desert to Shabwa and on to Shibam and Seiyun, (two days). Timna and Shabwa are both difficult to find even for those who know them.
Yemen has tremendous tourism potential, but not for mass package tourism. Presently there is a shortage of hotels, which limits the areas that most tourists can reach. There is a requirement for affordable four star hotels rather than five star business hotels which are more suited to oilmen.
There is also a need for the government to make some agreement with the tribes in the areas where the history and some of the beauty are most abundant, so that they stop harassing tourists and stealing artefacts from the historical sites.
The Yemen Government has shown itself to be a genuine democracy, but in common with other muslim countries, fundamentalists have begun trying to undermine that democracy. As always it is only the bad news that ever gets reported in the western media. In the wake of the present problems in Egypt the future of tourism in the Yemen will depend on its perceived safety to visitors.
Editor's note: Mr Jackson is a specialist tour operator, running J J Travel and Photography, catering for the more adventurous. Other operators offering tours to Yemen include British Museum Tours, Martin Randall Travel, Jasmin Tours, Prospect Tours, Swan Hellenic and Universal Travel and Tourism in Sana’a, for whom Abercrombie & Kent are agents.