In volatile Yemen, tourism is only for 'adventurers'

Spanish, French and American tourists once filled the winding alleys of Sanaa’s old quarter, drawn by Yemen’s 2 500-year-old history and unique architecture.

But a spate of attacks on foreigners is driving visitors away and souvenir shop owner Hussain Abdel Moghni says the only tourists who come to Yemen these days are “adventurers”.

“We had more than 3 000 tourists in the old city before, but they fell to 600 after the attack on the Spanish tourists,” said Abdel Moghni, referring to a July 2007 explosion that killed seven Spanish nationals.

Now, since shells were fired this month at a residential complex housing Americans and other Westerners, there have been no more than half a dozen tourists, he added.

“The tourists who are here now are the adventurers. Being here is a matter of life or death,” he said. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack on the residential compound—in which no one was hurt—and for a mortar attack that missed the United States embassy last month but wounded 13 girls at a nearby school.

A blast also shook an area near the offices of a Canadian oil company last Thursday.

In January, gunmen ambushed two tourist vehicles in Shibam and killed two Belgian women.

The seven Spanish tourists were killed in a blast at the Queen of Sheba temple in the volatile eastern province of Marib.

Ancient sites

One of the poorest countries outside Africa, Yemen has been trying to encourage tourism and draw foreign visitors to ancient sites such as the Biblical-era temple and the 16th-century towers of Shibam, dubbed the “Manhattan of the desert”.

But despite its wealth of attractions, from cool mountains, to Red Sea and Arabian Sea coasts, wild valleys and ancient ruins, tourism accounts for only 1,5% to 2% of Yemen’s GDP.

The Tourism Ministry, set up only in 2006, faces an uphill task to fulfil its target of attracting one million tourists by 2010.

“Five German tourists who were supposed to arrive this week cancelled their booking after the attack ...
Every time there is an attack, tourist numbers decrease,” says Abdul Wahed al-Hemiaree, manager of a 22-room hotel in Sanaa.

“This time last year, the hotel was almost full but now, there is almost nobody,” he added, walking among the empty tables of the hotel’s restaurant.

The ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, Yemen is seen in the West as a haven for al-Qaeda militants, dozens of whom are jailed for attacks on Western targets.

Kidnappings of Westerners by tribesmen trying to pressure the state into building rural roads also put visitors off. Foreigners need Interior Ministry permits to travel outside Sanaa, a measure authorities say is meant to protect them.

“What we are seeing now is a war on the economy ... by these attackers,” Abdel Moghni said.

“Tourists are now afraid to come to Yemen, especially the Americans because they are concerned they are being targeted,” he said, pointing to a picture of him with an American tourist. “See, he wants to come again but he can’t.”—Reuters

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