|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
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
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
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
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
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
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.