When I started researching how I could travel to Yemen, I must admit that I assumed it would not be possible at all. Given the strongly worded government travel warnings about this country, coupled with the fact that any positive news about Yemen seems to be in great shortage, I just figured that things such as obtaining a tourist visa and even finding good, safe accommodation options would be impossible, paving the way for only the craziest of the craziest travelers to dare venture here.
And while I’m open to doing some crazy things, I’m not sure if ‘craziest of the craziest’ was a category I wanted to be a part of.
But surprised was I when I started to learn that a few travelers are making their way to Yemen and that traveling in these parts is not nearly as difficult, or dangerous, as I had once thought.
Surrounded by Soldiers
And then, a few weeks later I was in the back of an old Toyota 4×4 with a local driver and guide, heading out of Sana’a into the Yemeni countryside. The road wound through some rocky hills, passing along the edges of valleys and eventually cruising across a massive 2000 meter high plateau. En route to our destination for the night, we stopped at the impressively situated rocktop Palace of the Imam (Dar Al-Hajar) and we wandered through the streets of Thula, an ancient, and very well-preserved, village with structures dating back some 3000 years.
After a couple of more short stops, it was time to head towards the town of Shibam.
Before entering Shibam, somewhere on the outskirts of town, our driver had to stop at a military checkpoint where he handed over a copy of the travel permits that all foreigners wanting to enter this region of Yemen must obtain. The soldier glanced at the paperwork for a moment, asked our driver a couple of questions and then, with a flick of his hand, allowed us to pass.
A few minutes later, we entered Shibam, where we had a great lunch, wandered through the friendly town and made a quick visit to the village of Kawkaban, clinging to the edge of a mountain nearby. Upon returning to our hotel in the afternoon, just in time to chew some qat of course, I realized that, not for one moment, had I felt unsafe, at all.
As I began to nibble away on some qat leaves, I asked our driver and guide about the military checkpoints, but they both brushed them off as nothing to be worried about and told me that the areas we would visit were perfectly safe. It all seemed reasonable to me…
…until the next morning when I was eating breakfast with the driver and guide in the small restaurant of the hotel.
The guide started to explain that, during the night, sometime around 11:00pm, a group of six armed government soldiers had shown up at the hotel.
“Why?” I asked.
“To protect you,” he said.
“What? I thought it was safe.”
“It is safe. But whenever there is a US citizen visiting, the government sends soldiers just in case,” he stated with a big smile on his face.
And for the rest of the day, our jeep was followed by a pickup truck with six armed soldiers sitting in the back. Not only that, whenever we got out of the jeep to visit a place such as the Al-Zakati Fort or the rocky cliffs near Bokur or to walk around the town of Mahweet, the soldiers got out of their truck as well and followed us around, never wandering too far away.
Even more surprising was the fact that this was quite a well-coordinated effort. As we were driving along a lonesome mountain road at one point, the soldier-filled truck behind us suddenly stopped. But sure enough, another truck, with another group of six soldiers was waiting for us right around the corner. This happened three times, with each group ‘handing us over’ once we reached the edge of their territory.
Now, before you let this whole soldier-following-you-around thing worry you, consider this. The Yemeni government, in an attempt to remain good friends of the USA, really does provide this soldier-escort service only to US citizens. Apparently, no other nationality receives this service. So, this does make me believe that such an escort is not really needed at all and is just for show. If these parts were so dangerous, the government would either provide the escort for everyone or they would add the area to the list of regions that foreigners are not allowed to travel to.
And whenever we got out of the vehicle, with our soldiers in tow, nobody in any town treated us any differently. It was as if the soldiers weren’t there and the soldiers certainly didn’t investigate anything, except for one town where they seemed to become a little more serious about their protective duties for a few minutes.
So, Is Yemen Safe?
Yemen is the kind of country you wouldn’t visit at all if you listened to all of the travel warnings. But it’s the kind of country you would probably be ready to visit if you listened to any traveler who has recently spent time there.
The thing is, Yemen has its fair share of issues. With a branch of Al-Qaeda operating in certain corners of the country, a south that wants to separate from the north and some tensions among tribal groups, it might seem as if any trip to this country would be doomed from the start.
However, if you travel wisely, which doesn’t really take too much effort, the chances of anything negative happening to you are extremely slim. Yemen, for smart travelers, is as safe as most places.
I personally didn’t feel as if I was in danger at any time, nor did I ever have a moment when I thought “Uh-oh, this could be trouble.” The parts of Yemen that I visited, and keep in mind that the Government of Yemen will not allow foreigners to travel to parts of the country that they deem unsafe, left me with nothing but a positive impression.
But again, I didn’t wander into the areas of Sana’a where the staff at our trusty hotel suggested we didn’t wander. I didn’t try to sneak into regions of the countryside where foreigners are not allowed to go. And I did my very best to respect and adhere to local customs wherever I went.
All of the people I met were extremely hospitable and welcoming (and many wouldn’t let us leave without taking their photos, something you can see from Anil’s “Faces of Yemen” post) in every single town in the country. I heard not one negative reaction when I said I was from the USA, only extended hands and smiles. The number of invitations I received for meals, or even to spend the night at a local’s home, from people I only met thirty seconds before, were too many to count. Again, friendliness, not danger, was what I felt the most during my stay.
And this was the case whether I was in the once-touristy town of Manakh or having lunch at a restaurant in some dusty crossroads community where everyone around us seemed as if they had never seen a foreigner before. It was the same when I was high up in the mountains, stumbling upon tiny villages only accessible by foot, and when I was walking through the nearly hidden back lanes of the main market in the historic Old City of Sana’a.
Of course, for some travelers, the sight of soldiers and tanks, dozens upon dozens of checkpoints (there are at least ten checkpoints between the Sana’a Airport and the center of the city) and the odd kaleshnikov-carrying man walking down the street might scare you away. And while those are all present for a reason, the chance of a traveler encountering anything but a smile or nod of the head from the soldiers or any gun-carrying individual, is not very high at all in my opinion.
Is Yemen Safe for Female Travelers?
Indeed it is. Speaking with my guide on the Yemeni mainland, it seemed as if he had just as many stories about female travelers he had recently shown around the country than about male travelers. And many of the females came either on their own or in a group of a few women. Of course, I am not a female but, based on the conversations I had throughout my stay, I learned that a foreign female would have no problems traveling throughout this country.
Yemenis do understand that foreigners have a different way of life and as a result, they welcome foreign females to join in any of the activities that males would partake in, even if it is something that a local woman is not allowed to, or doesn’t normally, do. You will be treated as a traveler, and as a result, those you meet will want to show you the best of their country.
And, as a female, you would have a chance to do something that a male traveler has little chance of doing. You could speak with and interact with females, giving you a much different perspective on life in Yemen and an entirely different set of rewarding experiences. During my stay, I must admit that I only spoke with three local females the entire time. One was a schoolgirl who wanted her photo taken, one was a 20-year old divorcee in a small village and one was a 17-year old trying to sell me some jewelry. That was it unfortunately.
Also, I did meet two foreign female travelers in Yemen during my stay and they were both having an incredible time. I heard not one complaint of trouble, harassment or any other difficulty and instead, they each told me that Yemen was one of the most welcoming countries they had been to and much easier to travel around, as a foreign female, than they had ever imagined.
I have something different planned for my upcoming post on incredible Socotra Island, the Yemeni island located in the Indian Ocean that I also visited on this trip. But for now, in terms of safety, I can tell you that the island is completely safe. They basically have a zero crime rate simply because it’s an isolated island. If you commit a crime, there’s absolutely nowhere to run to and everyone on the island knows each other. You can’t really find a safer destination to visit!
In conclusion, the risk of encountering any major problems in Yemen as a traveler is quite small if you travel wisely. This means staying away from spontaneous demonstrations (none of which we came across during our trip), learning which parts of the capital city to avoid, dressing appropriately, getting the necessary travel permits and most importantly perhaps, traveling with a licensed driver and guide through a reputable local company.
Traveling on your own in Yemen is not easy these days and you will find it to be quite a hassle to move around the country on public transportation and to pass through the dozens of checkpoints on every road. According to some reports, travelers are often turned away at checkpoints if they don’t have a local driver with them and just communicating with the soldiers in general (no English spoken) would be difficult. A local driver will also provide a bridge between you and the local communities, making it much easier for you to have rewarding travel experiences.
And besides, trying to organize the travel permits on your own would probably take up half your trip and conducting research in order to find reliable information on how to travel from one destination to another, where to get off the bus to visit a particular sight, how to reach the sights that are only accessible by 4×4 jeep along a non-existent road, which hotels are still in operation (many are closed now due to the lack of tourists), etc. would take up the other half.
Using a tour company to organize the visa, permits, driver and guide will ensure that you are able to see far more than you could ever see on your own, while enjoying a personally-tailored itinerary, for a price that suits your budget. And again, I’m going to recommend the tour company I used, Eternal Yemen, because they are as reliable as it gets and their team of kind, dedicated staff is what helped make my trip so memorable. (If you do use Eternal Yemen, make sure you request to have “Ali” as your driver…you won’t be disappointed!)
*Keep in mind that the above is simply my opinion and before traveling to Yemen, you should conduct additional research in order to decide if it’s the right destination for you to visit.
How does Yemen sound to you in terms of safety? Do you have any questions? Just let me know below!