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Saturday, 05 July 2008

Enchanting Yemen: A Country Largely Untouched by Tourism

Written by Lies Ouwerkerk
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Enchanting Yemen: A County Largely Untouched by Tourism, Manakha, Yemen's capital, Sana'a, Haraz Mountains, travel Yemen, tourism Yemen, Yemen sights, ancient cities, Taiz, Ibb, Jibla, Kaukaban, Thula, Marib, Socotra, Queen Arwa mosque, Al-Mukalla, Hadhramaut and Doan wadis,  Shibam, Gulf of Aden, Middle Eastern travel, Arabia Felix, Lies Ouwerkerk

"I taught myself as a kid," explains our trekking guide Abdullah, when we prudently inquire about his credentials in the face of a steep mountain ahead of us. "I tried this stone, and that rock, and every time I ventured a little bit farther. By now, I know that mountain inside out." Abdullah’s self-taught approach exemplifies Yemen’s response to its slowly growing tourist industry.

We are in the Manakha area, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Yemen's bewitching capital, Sana'aEnchanting Yemen: A County Largely Untouched by Tourism, Manakha, Yemen's capital, Sana'a, Haraz Mountains, travel Yemen, tourism Yemen, Yemen sights, ancient cities, Taiz, Ibb, Jibla, Kaukaban, Thula, Marib, Socotra, Queen Arwa mosque, Al-Mukalla, Hadhramaut and Doan wadis,  Shibam, Gulf of Aden, Middle Eastern travel, Arabia Felix, Lies Ouwerkerk, with its beautifully decorated facades and windows; its narrow streets overflowing with the sounds of street vendors, produce sellers, honking cars, and mosques' calls to prayer; and not to forget, its colorful, always buzzing souks (markets) with their particular smells of spices and their numerous qat (leaves chewed for their stimulating effects) silver, and jambiya (traditional dagger) sellers who always have a welcoming "as-salaam alaikum" for those passing by.

Manakha, in the Haraz Mountains, is the antidote to Sana'a's hustle and bustle: extremely peaceful and serene, with crisp air, clear and spectacular vistas, and small, picture-perfect villages perching along a cliff, towering above a mountain summit, or glued against a giant rock. On our hikes, we now and then pass friendly villagers who undisturbed go about their daily chores, as has probably been done for centuries: veiled women washing their laundry and fetching water at a trickling mountain stream; white-robed men plowing their small, terraced pieces of land or traveling by donkey to the market to buy their indispensable qat; and children herding goats or caring for each other.

Enchanting Yemen: A County Largely Untouched by Tourism, Manakha, Yemen's capital, Sana'a, Haraz Mountains, travel Yemen, tourism Yemen, Yemen sights, ancient cities, Taiz, Ibb, Jibla, Kaukaban, Thula, Marib, Socotra, Queen Arwa mosque, Al-Mukalla, Hadhramaut and Doan wadis,  Shibam, Gulf of Aden, Middle Eastern travel, Arabia Felix, Lies Ouwerkerk

When villagers happen to be home, we are often treated to a pot of tea, or invited inside the guest room to share their food: salta, a tasty vegetable dip, or bint al sahin, a delicious mix of bread and honey. At night, we stay in a simple funduq (inn) where there is always room for the unexpected guest. If there are not enough beds available, the innkeeper simply throws some mattresses and blankets on the floor. And who cares anyway, when Arabic dance and song in the mafraj (reception room) keeps everybody on their feet until the wee hours?

Enchanting Yemen: A County Largely Untouched by Tourism, Manakha, Yemen's capital, Sana'a, Haraz Mountains, travel Yemen, tourism Yemen, Yemen sights, ancient cities, Taiz, Ibb, Jibla, Kaukaban, Thula, Marib, Socotra, Queen Arwa mosque, Al-Mukalla, Hadhramaut and Doan wadis,  Shibam, Gulf of Aden, Middle Eastern travel, Arabia Felix, Lies Ouwerkerk

Manakha lies on a southwestern loop that also includes the ancient cities of Taiz, Ibb, Jibla, Kaukaban, and Thula. Often strategically built on top of a rock plateau or mountain range, they offer many dramatic views and points of historic and cultural interest, ranging from the Queen Arwa mosque in Jibla to the fascinating traditional markets in and around Taiz, where unveiled women proudly display their colorful dresses.


Enchanting Yemen: A County Largely Untouched by Tourism, Manakha, Yemen's capital, Sana'a, Haraz Mountains, travel Yemen, tourism Yemen, Yemen sights, ancient cities, Taiz, Ibb, Jibla, Kaukaban, Thula, Marib, Socotra, Queen Arwa mosque, Al-Mukalla, Hadhramaut and Doan wadis,  Shibam, Gulf of Aden, Middle Eastern travel, Arabia Felix, Lies OuwerkerkWe also follow a northeastern route to Marib, another ancient city that boasts remnants of a more than 3000-year-old civilization; then head onwards through the vast desert and the fertile, picturesque Hadhramaut and Doan wadis (river valleys) to the striking city of Shibam. Called the "Manhattan of the desert," its mud-brick buildings rise up to eight levels high, but no more, we were told this was because there is limited soil for a good foundation and it is also to prevent attack. When we finally reach the Gulf of Aden in the south, we eat fresh fish at Al-Mukalla, a harbor city of white-plastered houses, just hours after its many blue fishing boats have brought in their day’s catch.

Enchanting Yemen: A County Largely Untouched by Tourism, Manakha, Yemen's capital, Sana'a, Haraz Mountains, travel Yemen, tourism Yemen, Yemen sights, ancient cities, Taiz, Ibb, Jibla, Kaukaban, Thula, Marib, Socotra, Queen Arwa mosque, Al-Mukalla, Hadhramaut and Doan wadis,  Shibam, Gulf of Aden, Middle Eastern travel, Arabia Felix, Lies Ouwerkerk


Enchanting Yemen: A County Largely Untouched by Tourism, Manakha, Yemen's capital, Sana'a, Haraz Mountains, travel Yemen, tourism Yemen, Yemen sights, ancient cities, Taiz, Ibb, Jibla, Kaukaban, Thula, Marib, Socotra, Queen Arwa mosque, Al-Mukalla, Hadhramaut and Doan wadis,  Shibam, Gulf of Aden, Middle Eastern travel, Arabia Felix, Lies OuwerkerkClearly, Arabia Felix, as Roman invaders named Yemen when their frankincense trade was booming, has incredible potential for a well-developed tourist industry, definitely worthy of international acclaim. Yemen boasts varied topography, including almost 2000 kilometers of coastline with great diving, and at least 160 islands (magical Socotra, with its extremely rare flora and fauna, is the most famous). When combined with the country’s centuries-old traditions, architectural treasures, and fantastic weather all year round, one gets the perfect recipe for a flourishing tourist industry. So far, however, Yemen has not been able to maximize that potential like other Middle Eastern countries such as Jordan and Egypt have done.

One explanation is that Yemen suffers from a negative image internationally, not only because of civil unrest in the north, but also due to recent terrorist attacks in the Marib area and Sana’a. The USS Cole bombing in 2000 left a mark on Yemen as well. Deeply concerned about such terrorist acts ever happening again, authorities have strengthened their tourist police force in the hope of eliminating any security risks.

Enchanting Yemen: A County Largely Untouched by Tourism, Manakha, Yemen's capital, Sana'a, Haraz Mountains, travel Yemen, tourism Yemen, Yemen sights, ancient cities, Taiz, Ibb, Jibla, Kaukaban, Thula, Marib, Socotra, Queen Arwa mosque, Al-Mukalla, Hadhramaut and Doan wadis,  Shibam, Gulf of Aden, Middle Eastern travel, Arabia Felix, Lies OuwerkerkIt is also no secret that Yemen, with nearly half of its population younger than 15 years old and 43% of its people living under the $3 a day poverty line, lacks a strong infrastructure for general services and utilities, as well as financial resources to boost and maintain a healthy tourist industry. In addition, there is still a huge lack of proper tourist information and well-trained personnel in travel agencies, hotels, and restaurants who can tune into the expectations of international travelers. Maps, guidebooks, and brochures on interesting destinations are still scarce, and when they do exist, they are often poorly translated or light on detail. Both the Minister of Tourism and the movers and shakers of Yemen's tourism industry have recently promised many innovative measures to remedy these shortcomings, such as more internationally oriented hotels, more frequent flights, proper training for tourism personnel, and more accurate travel information.


This is certainly good news for Yemen’s national income and for travelers accustomed to more amenities. But for those who would like to experience the Queen of Sheba’s magnificent former kingdom just as it has been for centuries, there may be an urgency to visit Yemen sooner rather than later, before the consequences--more tourists, jewelry stalls, pop vendors, and kids begging for pens, candies, and money—dull Yemen's charm and authenticity.Enchanting Yemen: A County Largely Untouched by Tourism, Manakha, Yemen's capital, Sana'a, Haraz Mountains, travel Yemen, tourism Yemen, Yemen sights, ancient cities, Taiz, Ibb, Jibla, Kaukaban, Thula, Marib, Socotra, Queen Arwa mosque, Al-Mukalla, Hadhramaut and Doan wadis,  Shibam, Gulf of Aden, Middle Eastern travel, Arabia Felix, Lies Ouwerkerk

These travelers will, at least if they are prepared to turn a blind eye to Yemen's current imperfections, certainly be mesmerized by its unique architecture, by its cultural and geographical wonders, and by its romantic ambience straight out of "Thousand and One Nights." They will also be warmly welcomed by incredibly hospitable people eager to greet them with some words of English, help them find their way through the mazes of narrow streets, and often invite them into their modest homes.

GETTING TO YEMEN

Various airlines connect Sana'a with the rest of the world. Qatar Airways flies to Sana'a via Doha, Qatar and London, England; Turkish Airlines offers direct flights between Sana'a and Istanbul, Turkey. A visa is needed for entry to Yemen and can be purchased upon arrival or at Yemeni embassies abroad.

By far, the best travel option outside of Sana'a is hiring a 4x4 and driver through a reliable Yemeni tour operator. Not only can independent travel by local transport be very complicated and uncomfortable, but tour companies can also arrange for the necessary travel permits and police escorts in potentially "dangerous" zones, as well as provide indispensable know-how on itineraries, driving distances, proper roads in remote areas, and can provide cheaper rates in restaurants and hotels.

Enchanting Yemen: A County Largely Untouched by Tourism, Manakha, Yemen's capital, Sana'a, Haraz Mountains, travel Yemen, tourism Yemen, Yemen sights, ancient cities, Taiz, Ibb, Jibla, Kaukaban, Thula, Marib, Socotra, Queen Arwa mosque, Al-Mukalla, Hadhramaut and Doan wadis,  Shibam, Gulf of Aden, Middle Eastern travel, Arabia Felix, Lies Ouwerkerk

Recommended travel agencies include:

- Universal Group Yemen

www.universalyemen.com

Tel. 967-1-440-305

- Yemen Explorers offers adventure and women-only tours.

www.yemen-explorers.com

Tel. 967-1-404-838

- Yemeni Dreams features adventure tours, customized programs, and ecotours.

www.yemeni-dreams.com

Tel. 967-1-514-028


WHERE TO STAY IN THE OLD CITY OF SANA'A:Enchanting Yemen: A County Largely Untouched by Tourism, Manakha, Yemen's capital, Sana'a, Haraz Mountains, travel Yemen, tourism Yemen, Yemen sights, ancient cities, Taiz, Ibb, Jibla, Kaukaban, Thula, Marib, Socotra, Queen Arwa mosque, Al-Mukalla, Hadhramaut and Doan wadis,  Shibam, Gulf of Aden, Middle Eastern travel, Arabia Felix, Lies Ouwerkerk

- Burj Al Salam. Prices start at $59 for a comfortable single room with a bathroom.

www.burjalsalam.com

Tel. 967-1-483-333

- Arabia Felix Hotel. Prices start at $22 for a clean and simple single room with a bathroom.

http://arabiafelix.free.fr

Tel. 967-1-287-330

- Dawood Hotel. Prices start at $20 for a basic single with a shared bathroom.

Tel. 967-1-287-270

WHERE TO STAY IN THE MANAKHA AREA:

- Funduq Aqil. Rates start at $20 for a basic single room with a bathroom, plus a lavish dinner with dance and music. Treks ranging from half a day to a week can be arranged through the funduq.

Tel. 967-1-460-124

Breakfast is always included in Yemeni hotels.

©Lies Ouwerkerk

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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