Party! Yemen covets a racier clientele

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Editor's note: Armed Yemeni tribesmen kidnapped two American tourists outside the capital Sanaa on Monday. On May 13 GlobalPost published the following story about Yemen's efforts to boost its tourism industry.

SANA'A, Yemen — Yemen is the most gorgeous place you’ll probably never visit.

In the north and east, the walled-cities of Sana’a and Shibam, both UNESCO Heritage sites, rise up out of the desert, all filigree and engraved ornamentation, like weathered wedding cakes, and in the west and south, the ancient port cities of Zabid and Aden, craggy and timeless, look out over an expanse of white sand beaches, shimmering turquoise water and an exposition of sea life that would make even a hardened diver swoon.

“Yemen is the perfect place for tourists. We have history, culture, historical cities, beaches and adventure,” said Yemen’s Deputy Minister for Tourism Development Omar Babelgheith. “Yemen should be the new Egypt. It should be the international tourist destination in the Middle East.”

Yemen as an international Spring Break hot spot seems laughable, perhaps, in a nation that is better known for battling Al Qaeda, two ongoing internal insurgencies, widespread poverty and worrying political unrest. But no one at Yemen’s Ministry of Tourism is joking.

Hobbled by 35 percent unemployment, skyrocketing population growth and a plummeting of oil revenues — the backbone of the nation’s GDP — by $2 billion in the past two years, the Yemeni government has turned to tourism as a potential source of economic salvation.

"Tourism is Yemen’s only sustainable industry,” said Babelgheith. “We have the natural and historic resources to attract millions of people. It could be a very successful venture, economically and for Yemen’s future.”

Yemen’s tourism sector accounts for 1 to 2 percent of the nation’s GDP — compared to Egypt’s tourism sector, which contributes roughly 11 percent — and that's after the government spent millions of dollars in recent years expanding the sector, Babelgheith said.

Last year, the Ministry of Tourism hosted 13 publicity fairs in cities across Europe and Asia to raise awareness about Yemen’s tourism potential, and in 2006 it launched — in partnership with the European Commission — the National Hotel and Tourism Institute in Sana’a to train new tour guides and hotel owners in the business of mass tourism.

The ministry has ambitious goals.

It hopes to lure 1.5 million tourists per year by 2015, Babelgheith said — an almost 50 percent increase from 2009, when roughly 900,000 tourists came to Yemen, according to government records, which count as “tourists” anyone who visits Yemen for virtually any purpose — including Yemeni expats, businessmen, students and some NGO workers.

The elephant in the room, of course, is Yemen’s fragile security situation. Yemen is currently battling a separatist insurgency in its southern and eastern provinces, an on-again, off-again war against Houthi rebels in the northern provinces, and a large-scale war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group’s Yemen-based affiliate.

Yemen was launched into the headlines on Christmas Day, when Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula took responsibility for the attempted bombing of Flight 253 over Detroit. Last week, Yemen made headlines again after an attempted suicide attack on the British ambassador in Sana’a.

Tourism officials’ problems are compounded by a series of recent terrorist attacks that specifically targeted tourists. In 2007, eight Spanish tourists were killed in a suicide attack near the city of Marib in the Hadramout, Yemen’s eastern desert, and six months later, two Belgians were shot to death nearby. Last March, four South Korean tourists were killed in a suicide attack while photographing the sunset over Shibam, a UNESCO Heritage Site. And in June, seven Germans, a Briton and a South Korean were kidnapped in Saada, a northern province. Three bodies turned up later, and the other six people are still missing. No organization has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Most Western governments have published official travel warnings cautioning their citizens against traveling to Yemen for a “non-essential purpose.” Tourists who come to Yemen anyway may not travel outside the capital city without a government permit, and are prohibited from traveling to huge swaths of the country at all, due to kidnapping threats.

“People hear this bad news — deaths, terrorist attacks, kidnapping — and what do you think happens? They don’t come,” said Ahmed Baider, whose family has run the Taj Talha Hotel and travel agency for the past 20 years. “We know people who have had to sell the beds in their hotel rooms just to pay rent.”

Tourism in Yemen, which was relatively vibrant in the late '90s, stopped almost entirely after the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden in 2000, and the events of Sept. 11, Baider said. The number of guests staying at his family’s hotel increased briefly from 2005 to 2007, but then dropped off again after the Spanish tourists were killed in Marib.

Industry officials expect the number of visitors to Yemen to continue to fall this summer and autumn, as a result of the international coverage of the attempted bombing over Christmas.

Babelgheith, however, remains optimistic. “People forget, or they realize that any travel — even to New York City — can have risks, and they decide to come anyway,” he said, citing Egypt’s problem with terrorist attacks targeting tourists for the last two decades. The 1997 attack in Luxor, Egypt, killed 58 foreigners and was reported to have caused a 50-percent decrease in revenue that year. It’s since largely recovered.

Hesham al-Marwani, who graduated from the government’s National Hotel and Tourism Institute in the first class of 2008, isn’t so sure.

“Four years ago, the Minister of Tourism Nabil al-Fakih came to the institute and promised all of us, 150 of us, that we would have jobs when we graduated. He said, ‘Don’t worry, just study, and the tourists will come.’ But where are the tourists now?” he asked. “I think I’m in the wrong career.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.