Yemen: What to see, where to stay and who to book with

Yemen: What to see, where to stay and who to book with

The Yemen Tourism Promotion Board aims to increase the small number of UK visitors to the country and recently appointed tourism consultants Dunira Strategy to raise its profile.

But Dunira certainly has its work cut out. In recent years the country, which borders Saudi Arabia to the north and Oman to the east, and is the homeland of a certain Bin Laden family, has been swept up wholesale into the 'War on Terror'.

Sporadic terrorist attacks and incidents of foreign tourists being kidnapped and even killed persist, resulting in areas being declared off limits to tourists. Companies such as Intrepid Travel and Nomadic Thoughts have pulled their tours due to safety and security concerns.

All of which is a great shame, as the country is stunningly beautiful, Yemenis are incredibly welcoming and, as befits one of the world's most continuously inhabited areas, the country is home to an embarrassment of major historical sites.

I felt very safe on my trip in February, but for now, the Foreign Office continues to advise against all but essential travel to Yemen. As such, the destination remains 'one to watch' for most operators and agents. But if your more intrepid clients ask about it, possibly as part of a twin-centre break with nearby Dubai or Oman, here's what you need to know.

Must-see Yemen

The capital Sana'a, said to have been founded by Noah's son, Shem, will be the first port of call for most tourists. A wander around old Sana'a, with its lively souk and crowded narrow streets lined with ancient tower houses, is a real treat.

A 45-minute flight east gets you to Seiyun, an ideal base for exploring Wadi Hadramawt, a 100-mile-long valley that was formerly a key centre for the frankincense trade. The towns of Seiyun and Tarim are well worth a look, but the local highlight is the ancient city of Shibam, dubbed the Manhattan of the Desert, famed for its mud-brick skyscrapers. Head to Shibam late afternoon to explore the city before hiking up the nearby hill for the obligatory sunset snap.

The drive south enables you to explore the historic valley towns and villages of Wadi Do'an such as Al Hajareen before hitting the seaport of Al Mukalla, with its lively nighttime esplanade, bustling fish market and airport for onwards travel.

Alternatively, head up the coast, via Bir Ali with its pretty beaches, to the lively port town and commercial centre of Aden where legend has it Noah's Ark was built. A British governorate until 1967, Aden is more relaxed than the rest of the Muslim country.

A few hours' scenic drive west from Sana'a, the pretty mountain towns of Kawkaban and Manakha act as gateways to the hiking trails in the Haraz Mountains (highest peak 3,760 metres), and the beautiful surrounding villages such as Al Hajjarah.

Also within striking distance of Sana'a is the area of Wadi Dhahr with pretty towns like Thula, Hababah and Kawkaban and enchanting sights such as the Stone Palace, the Al Hajar.

Other places of interest in the country include the former capital Zabid, while sights at Marib - a good base for exploring the surrounding desert and Bedouin culture - include the ruins of the world's oldest dam and the Awwam Temple. Other stunning landmarks include the beguiling suspended bridge at Shahara. Send coffee fans on a pilgrimage to Al Mokha, the former centre of the industry.

If flora and fauna is your client's thing, head to the beguiling island of Socotra, oft-dubbed the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean thanks to its rich and varied natural life.

Yemen also has a little-developed diving scene centred on the Gulf of Aden and its many Red Sea islands.

Accommodation

In Sana'a, visitors can either stay in the old town in hotels such as the recently opened, traditional-style Burj Al Salam or head to the fringes of town for Western-style offerings such as the run-down Sheraton or very swanky Mövenpick - each disconcertingly flanked by armed guards.

Alternatively, the Taj Sheba, just outside the old town, offers a Western/local mix and - like the previous two - over-priced alcohol (£8 for a small can of Heineken, anyone?) and nightclubs.

Options in Seiyun include the quiet Al Hawta Palace Hotel on the edge of town, built in the style of a mud palace. In nearby Wadi Duan, suggest the colourful Khailah Palace Tourist Hotel while in Al Mukalla the 106-room Holiday Inn, with pool and private beach, is the pick of the bunch. Accommodation on Socotra is very basic.

When to go

Play safe by ruling out May-October. Temperatures in Yemen can nudge 50C in the valleys in June and July and early autumn brings the rains. Mountain areas get cold in winter, while Socotra should be avoided in the windy season (roughly April to June).

How to get there

Yemenia, the national carrier, flies Heathrow-Sana’a (some flights operate via Cairo), while domestic carrier Felix Airways operates a fleet of comfortable new aircraft. The country’s road network has improved greatly in recent years.

Travel permits are needed for travel around the country (except Socotra). In theory you could hire a driver and get your own permit (they only cost a few pounds) but it’s easier – and potentially safer – to travel as part of a guided tour group. Good local options include Universal Tours, which also operates some decent hotels. (Tel: +967 1 275120)

Yemen photos from flickr

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Sample product

GAP Adventures’ new 14-day Yemen Adventure tour takes in mountain villages and oasis cities, Red Sea ports, frankincense groves, and desert towns, including Wadi Dhahr, Sana’a, Wadi Hadramawt and Aden. The price (excluding flights) is £729, plus $200 local payment, departing October 10-23. (Tel: 0870 999 0144, gapadventures.com/travel_agents/agent/faq)

Highlights of Imaginative Traveller’s 15-day Yemen Discovery escorted tour include visits to Ibb, the beaches of Bir Ali, Wadi Hadramawt, Sana’a and Shibam. The price of £1,296 for travel December 5-19 includes 10 nights in tourist-class hotels, four nights in local guest houses, most meals, flight from Sana’a to Seiyun, four-wheel drive travel, airport transfers and entrance fees. Flights are available from £539 per person. (Tel: 0845 026 1788, nilemonitor.com/agent)

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