Yemen gives tourism the nod

One country looks on as tourism in the Gulf explodes.

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By  John Irish Published  October 9, 2003

Like an ageing footballer heading for Qatar, Yemen began plotting its return to the tourism trail last month by staging a two-day conference analysing the country's travel sector.

The agenda focused on restoring confidence in the country's hospitality sector by looking at administrative, security and travel issues, while establishing the best way to promote the land of the Queen of Sheba in the coming months.

While neighbouring countries talk of cooperation, joint visas and large-scale tourism development, Yemen has found it tough going, partly due to its status in the global media as a haven for suspected terrorist organisations. Additionally, since 1998 tourists have become more wary following a string of kidnappings that culminated in the death of four foreigners in Abyan that year.

However, speaking to the London-based Al Hayat newspaper Khaled Al Roweishan, Yemen's tourism and culture minister said that he expected the state to enter a new phase in the coming years citing a rise in inbound tourism from the Arab World and the Arabian Peninsula as a positive sign.

According to the most recent available government statistics the number of visitors to Yemen in 2001 exceeded 75,500, spending a total of US $38 million, an increase of 4% on 2000. Of that number 45.9% came from the Middle East while 35.6% made the trip from Europe. 19% of the total number of visitors came from neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, after recovering tentatively from the negative press emanating from kidnappings, the US' war on terror and the conflict in Iraq has made it harder to attract tourists.

"In the last year it was very difficult, but we are seeing an increase in the business segment mainly for Sanaa and Taz," says Salah M Farajat, sales and marketing director, ACCOR Hotels, Yemen. "Occupancy rates at the Sofitel Sanaa for the year so far are at 70%, while average occupancy in the city is about 55%," he adds.

Nevertheless, the Yemeni authorities and the World Bank outlined tourism, which accounts for approximately 13% of GDP, as vital in taking Yemen up the economic table. According to the United Nations' Human Development index, Yemen ranks 144 out of 173 with illiteracy and unemployment escalating.

But there is sign of hope. Last month, Movenpick Hotels & Resorts signed a management agreement for its first property in Sanaa. ACCOR is also looking to open a hotel in Aden by 2005 and with players such as the Sheraton and Taj group already in place, the infrastructure on the ground is gradually developing. At present there are 424 hotels guaranteeing over 13,000 rooms.

Part of the new strategy will also focus on preserving historical sites, while launching new projects across the state. One such plan is an ambitious $5 million development in Aden to construct a 1324m long cable car service taking passengers to a mountain top restaurant.

"The government is beginning to control things. The media needs to control itself, then we can look to the GCC and Middle East first," he adds.

Faraj may seem overoptimistic, but one factor that backs him is a recent World Bank report. The financial organisation indicated that conditions for economic growth in Yemen were better than ever as long as the private sector leads the way in maintaining social and economic development.

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