Year of tourism

After years of being top of international travel warning lists, Yemen is now cleaning up its tourism image and aiming high with new five-star hotels, increased air links and a tourism master plan

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By  Sarah Campbell Published  December 12, 2005

|~|Movenpick-Sana'a-L.jpg|~|The Movenpick Hotel Sana’a is set to open early next year.|~|Tourism is gaining more significance in Yemen, as the government looks for ways to increase international currency receipts, provide more employment for the young, and elevate its standing on the international stage. Several initiatives have been developed during 2005, and the government and the Yemen Tourism Promotion Board are now flagging 2006 as the year of tourism for the Arab state. Plans for the year include improving infrastructure services, implementing security plans, promoting tourism and of making investment. In addition, the country is working toward simplifying its immigration procedures at entry ports. It seems the Yemeni government is finally prepared to invest in order to reap the rewards of increased tourism revenues. Revenues from tourism increased to US $214 million in 2004 compared to US $139 million in 2003. Tourism has grown over the past two years, and that looks set to continue as the first half of 2005 saw a sharp increase in the number of tourists recorded, reaching 159,410 tourists. Tourism returns hit US $160 million. The country itself is abundant in natural, historical and archaeological attractions. Yemen’s most famous monarch, the Queen of Sheba, continues to hold an allure and has been the centre of a number of international campaigns and exhibitions. Its desert, coastal areas and numerous islands have become something of an eco-tourism Mecca in recent years, the capital city, Sana’a, has areas that have been inhabited for over 3000 years, while the city of Shibam boasts the first skyscraper in the world, built some 600 years ago. Despite all this, the hotel industry in the country is largely under-developed, especially when compared to its GCC neighbours. International four- and five-star hotels are in the minority, with local guesthouses of no international standard making up the majority of accommodation. “The hotel industry is not developing according to the demand in the market,” admits Marco Livadiotti, general manager, Universal Touring Company, a Sana’a-based inbound tour operator. However, hotel development is slowly gaining more precedence. Sheraton already operates two five-star properties in the country, the Sheraton Sana’a and the Sheraton Gold Mohur Hotel & Resort, Aden. Meanwhile, the Aden Mercure Hotel was inaugurated in February and Movenpick is set to officially open the Movenpick Hotel Sana’a in January. The Swiss chain already operates the Movenpick Hotel Aden, and it is confident that its latest opening will prove profitable. The new Movenpick Hotel Sana’a will undoubtedly to be considered as a new icon of Yemen. Set on the foothills of Sana’a city, the hotel overlooks the entire capital and comprises of 346 rooms, including 29 suites and an executive club. The hotel will also boast six restaurants and bars, including an all-day dinning restaurant, a modern Moroccan restaurant with front cooking, an Italian restaurant and an entertainment centre. The Movenpick Hotel Sana’a will also have the largest convention centre in Yemen with a 1500m² pillar-less ballroom, an auditorium, six daylight meeting rooms and a private Majlis for VIPs, all backed by a business centre support service. “Part of our company expansion plan is focused on the need to have deluxe hotels and residences in key cities and resort destinations that are either growing or are in demand from guests of our feeder markets, predominately central Europe,” says Toufic Tami, director of sales & marketing, Middle East, Movenpick Hotels & Resorts. “Over the last few years, we have witnessed an increasing interest from Germany, Switzerland and France for leisure and MICE groups to Middle Eastern destinations such as Egypt, Jordan, the GCC and Yemen. The new Movenpick Hotel Sana’a will come to redefine the standards of luxury accommodation in Yemen and play an integral role in promoting Yemen as a hidden jewel of the Arabian Peninsula. We are confident of the destination’s potential to grow as a leisure and MICE destination and are proud to play a leading part in this development,” he adds. Supporting this development, the National Hotel and Tourism Institute (NAHOTI) was opened in Sana’a in September. The institute aims to fulfil the hotel industry’s technical and educational needs. “The establishment of this specialised institute for tourism and hospitality in Yemen will push tourism forward in the most effective way possible,” says Khaled Al-Duais, PR & information manager, Yemen Tourism Promotion Board. “The new institute is being supported by the European Union as part of its co-operation with Yemen’s tourist sector. The institute will offer courses in reception, hotel management, food and beverage, tourist guidance, tourist agencies and travel agencies,” he explains. Meanwhile, the Tourism Development Authority (TDA) say that there are 72 tourism projects in Yemen currently under development costing an estimated US $350 million. The new tourism projects with the TDA will provide 60,000 new jobs for Yemeni citizens. New tourist and industrial investment opportunities on western Yemeni seashores are to open, including 50 tourist chalets, 50 tourist housing units, and a diving centre. There are further projects planned for tourist villages at Al-Mulk beach, 35km away from Khokhah district, while the TDA has signed agreements on setting up six tourist sites on the coastlines of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. All of this development cannot come quickly enough for Yemen’s inbound tour operators, who are seeing continued growth from European markets and require a tourism product of international standards to enable them to continue growing. Universal Touring Company in Sana’a specialises in organising inbound groups from Italy, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland and America. “In general, we handle 10-12,000 tourists a year, with the average stay for each tour being 12-14 nights,” says Marco Livadiotti, general manager. According to Livadiotti, Yemen is well known. However, at the same time, there is lack of information on the destination and he claims this why a lot of tour operators hesitate before organising to take groups into the country. “I usually spend 3-4 months in a year in Europe, promoting the destination Yemen,” he adds. “Business this year is doing very well compared to last year and I would say that business is still more than doubled than last year. In the month of October, we handled 1000 tourists with an average stay of 12 nights,” he confirms. While business is up, Universal Touring Company plans to invest in developing its own chain of hotels in Yemen. The company already runs four four-star hotels and it is planning to build an additional 2-3 properties in the years ahead. “[These will be small hotels with 50-60 rooms in each hotel, good quality, good taste, enough for the type of clients and type of tours that we organise around the country,” says Livadiotti. The company is also planning to organise a number of camp sites in the desert, along the coast and on the island of Socotra, an emerging eco-tourism haven located off the coast of Yemen. Socotra is a small island stranded in the Indian Ocean, which attracts around 400 visitors a year. The attraction is its wild, empty beaches, mountain views and unique wildlife, with a third of the 900 plant species found on the island being indigenous to Socotra. While getting to Socotra is somewhat of a hike, air links to the main land are now set to increase. Yemenia Airways has announced new changes to its winter flight schedule. The new schedule will include daily flights to Cairo, eleven weekly flights to Dubai and non-stop flights to European destinations such as Rome, London and Paris. “Last year, Yemenia carried over one million passengers. Yemenia Airways has opened negotiations with Boeing for the purchase of ten 787 passenger aircraft to reinforce its current fleet that covers 30 destinations around the globe. The new aircraft will enable Yemenia to meet an expected increase in demand for flights over the coming years,” says Al-Duais from Yemen Tourism Promotion Board. With flight links back on track, a slow, but important, growth in the five-star hotel sector and government backing to increase promotion, Yemen looks set to enjoy increased success in 2006 — making it most definitely a year of tourism.||**||

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