x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Yemen chases new beginning with drive to lure Asian tourists

Yemen hopes to rebuild its struggling economy after a turbulent couple of years by tempting back expats and reviving the tourism sector.

Kassim Sallam Said, Yemen's minister of tourism, says the government is doing its best to protect visitors to the country. Hadeel Al Sayegh / The National
Kassim Sallam Said, Yemen's minister of tourism, says the government is doing its best to protect visitors to the country. Hadeel Al Sayegh / The National

SANAA // Yemen's minister of tourism said he was targeting expatriates from South East Asia amid travel warnings from western countries as the country slowly recovers from two years of political turmoil.

The minister has been participating in international exhibitions in China, India and Turkey, as well as Malaysia and Indonesia, two countries with a large number of immigrant Yemenis from the 19th century and earlier, to lure tourists and businessmen who could bring much-needed revenue for the impoverished country.

"I understand the concerns that the world has about Yemen's security environment, but I want to provide assurance that we will do everything in our power to protect any guest that comes here," said Kassim Sallam Said, the Yemeni tourism minister.

This week Etihad Airways launched services to Sanaa.

The number of foreign visitors to Yemen has dropped by 50 per cent, from 600,000 a year to 300,000, since the removal of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh last year.

The ministry is also calling for foreign investment to set up tourism companies, and operate hotels and chalets tax-free for the first five years.

Sanaa used to be a favoured destination for western travellers until the 1970s, lured by the old city's labyrinth of narrow streets that tuck away gingerbread-like buildings decorated with geometric shapes and stained glass.

But today, the city is shunned. Kidnappings of foreigners by Islamist militants under the umbrella of Al Qaeda have been on the rise.

Last month, threats of an Al Qaeda-sponsored attack triggered the closure of US diplomatic missions across the Middle East, including Yemen.

Yemen's national reconciliation phase is expected to herald a new beginning for the Middle East's poorest nation as it tackles pressing issues such as youth unemployment.

There are close to 500,000 young people without jobs in Yemen, said Mr Said.

Tackling this issue will lure young people away from rebellion, terrorism and chaos, he added.

Mr Said is a member of Yemen's National Dialogue Conference, a UN-backed body formed from a number of political parties to draft the country's new constitution and to tackle current challenges.

A positive outcome would pave the way for US$8 billion worth of donor money. "Here, we meet at the Mövenpick Hotel as if there aren't any rivalries. It's a real achievement that we have got to this point," he said.

Yemen's economy is forecast to grow 4.4 per cent this year, according to IMF estimates, from a 0.1 per cent increase last year.

The country's central bank governor, Mohammed bin Hammam, this year said he expected a budget deficit of $3.2bn, that will be partly financed by foreign aid.

"If we managed to maintain stability and completed the six-month long dialogue conference with new decisions, a new government, a new leadership and a new state that's united and allows the Yemeni people to work together, then we will be able to combat the fears about our country abroad," Mr Said said.