Source: Reuters By Cynthia Johnston 05/05/2010
DUBAI (Reuters) - Yemen lured in a few thousand more tourists in 2009 despite al Qaeda attacks but fears travel warnings will scare holidaymakers away, a senior tourist official said on Tuesday.
Deputy Minister for Tourism Development Omar Babelgheith told Reuters that the number of tourists visiting Yemen, home to centuries-old tower houses in Sanaa and the famed Socotra island archipelago, rose by up to 6,000 in 2009 to 1.1 million.
Babelgheith said reports of danger to holidaymakers, including the risk of kidnapping by disgruntled tribes or Islamist militants in the fractious country, were grossly exaggerated and Western travel warnings were posing a challenge.
"I don't have any worries at all," he said of the potential risks to tourists, speaking on the sidelines of a tourism fair in Dubai.
Yemen, on a historic Arabian peninsula spice route, is home to rugged mountains, pristine beaches and the ruins of the ancient Sabaean capital. Socotra hosts an ecological treasure trove of plants and animals including the dragon's blood tree.
Tourism revenues, which contribute nearly 3 percent of GDP, rose 2 percent to $903 million in 2009, he said, adding that Yemen also saw significant gains in the first quarter of 2010. Seventy percent of visitors were from the Gulf.
Yemen shot to the top of Western security concerns after al Qaeda's Yemen-based arm claimed responsibility for a failed bomb attack on a U.S.-bound passenger plane in December.
Sanaa, also trying to quiet a northern Shi'ite rebellion and quash southern separatism, has been battling al Qaeda and other militant groups eroding its stability for years. Western governments and Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda will use Yemen as a base for further attacks in the region and beyond.
The global militant group has carried out a number of attacks on international targets in Yemen, including the bombing in 2000 of the USS Cole in Aden harbour that killed 17 sailors.
Security fears have risen this month after a suspected al Qaeda suicide bomber tried to kill the British ambassador in Sanaa in April, prompting the U.S. embassy to instruct staff to avoid a luxury hotel in the capital.
Babelgheith said Yemen, strategically located next to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, had taken steps to make the country safer for tourists including adopting a system of tracking tourist vehicles, in order to keep visitors safe.
"It is computerised. You can locate the car, where is it exactly. You can know the directions of this car," he said, adding the risk to tourists in most areas of Yemen was "zero".
"They can travel freely. They will get advice not to move to these certain areas, only escorted. But there are certain areas, which is most of the republic, where they can move freely."
A German family of five and a Briton are currently missing in Yemen, held by kidnappers the government believes have links to al Qaeda. Another three foreign women seized alongside them in northern Yemen in June were later found dead.
An al Qaeda suicide bomber also killed four south Korean tourists a year ago who had been visiting Shibam, a UNESCO World Heritage site dubbed the "Manhattan of the Desert" for its 16th century tower houses rising up to 16 storeys high.
Babelgheit said Sanaa was sticking to a target to lure 1.5 million tourists by 2015 that diplomats have said looked doomed.
"We do hope to receive 1.5 million (by 2015) and to achieve revenue-wise $2 billion, and to achieve 20 million tourist nights as we have already now achieved almost 11 million tourist nights," Babelgheith said.
Yemen, which has seen its currency weaken since the start of the year and last month replaced its central bank governor, needs the tourism revenue to bolster an economy facing dwindling oil and water resources and a depreciating currency