Tourism in the Yemen -- A View

by Jack Jackson

Yemen Update 35 (1994):16.21

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 Sanaa, Hodeida, Marib and Hajja and usable ones in Ta'izz and Sa'da. 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 Sanaa.

New asphalt roads now reach the main sites of Barrakesh, Marib, al-Janad and Jibla and join the north to the south from al-Baydha to Lawdar and from Hammam Damt through Aden. Ma'in and al-Jawf are still off limits for tribal reasons and there are occasional tribal problems around Bani Hushaysh, Marib, Sa'da, 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 mihrab of the Ashrafiyya mosque, in Ta'izz.

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 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, but it still has many mistakes. In Sanaa 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, of 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 Sanaa - Ta'izz - Hodeidah and Ma'rib because hotels are available and all the route is asphalt road. The bare trip can be accomplished by bus.

Some German tours go father afield but still get back to the 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 Sanaa 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 Ta'izz, or direct to Sanaa.

You can hire four-wheel drive vehicles in Sanaa, 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 implicity. There are not any hotels near Mokha. The only rural markets worth specifically attending are at Bayt al-Faqih (Friday) and Jarrahi (Tuesday), you must go in the morning of the correct day. Most Yemeni printed booklets contain incorreclty captioned pictures.

Less common sites may involve camping or funduqs 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 eat to Zufar, 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 meters high and two meters across is cut through the mountain, there are several inscriptions. Across the valley another tunnel was abandoned half finished. . .

[excerpted from The British-Yemeni Society Journal , November, 1993]

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