Is Yemen Safe For Travelers

Is Yemen Safe For Travelers?

Derek Travel Tales, Yemen 101 Comments

Is Yemen Safe For Travelers

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.

Thula village

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.

Kawkaban, Yemen

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.

Hmmm….

Soldiers at Al-Zakati Fort

Soldiers Following Us Around

Soldiers at Bokur

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.

View from Bokur, Yemen

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. Anil from Foxnomad.com wrote more about the safety situation in Yemen: Is It Safe To Travel To Yemen?

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.

The Result?

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.

Jambiya seller, Old Sanaa

Man from Manakh, Yemen

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.

Boys wearing Jambiyas in Kawkaban

Bab al-Yemen Gate, Sanaa

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. For more specific information about traveling here as a female, be sure to read: Solo Female Travel to Yemen – Your Questions Answered

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.

Socotra Island

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!

Socotra Island landscape

Travel Wisely

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!

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Comments 101

  1. Miguel

    Cool, I was about to go Yemen once but there was a suicide attack and a girl from my own town died.. Of course, that scared me and I ended up going to Mali, which is pretty dangerous now. (so, Im glad I went that time) Anyway.. Yemen is definitely on my bucket list.
    Safe travels,
    Miguel.

  2. Mohamed

    I am Yemeni, and I feel that I am not safe in my country, I saw many people died with no reason. Yemen have amazing places that you will not see in any other country, but also have many of ignorant people that will cut your head with big smile. I’m sorry but Yemen unfortunately not safe.

  3. Mark

    How was your visa process?

    Did you obtain a visa overseas in a neighboring country of did you go to the embassy in Washington

    1. Post
      Author
      Derek

      Hey Mark – I used an agency in Sanaa to help facilitate the process. I applied to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with their assistance and once I was approved, I received a confirmation letter that I simply brought to the airport in Sanaa and upon arrival, handed it over at the visa desk and received my visa.

  4. Laura

    Earl, Everytime I look at those photos I just ache to get out there and see them for myself! And it is an ache because it’s unlikely I’ll travel to yemen anytime soon.
    I have good friends here in California who are from Yemen. She has been here over 40 years and her sons have grown up American. Of course all the brides come from Yemen and the weddings take place there, not here. She tells me ALL THE TIME now that she will not be going back. It’s too “lawless”. This from a woman who returned home on a regular basis for decades. If she is afraid in her own country – where she has more relatives than the Pope has prelates, how can the rest of us feel safe?
    I have not given up on seeing this phenomenal land. But I’m not holding my breath either.

  5. Rocketman

    If you think Yemen is safe, you’re nuts! Most people can probably travel there and come home alive…just because the odds are in their favor. But traveling to countries that include the presence of Al Qaeda (in Yemen it’s AQAP, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), is beyond crazy. If you get kidnapped, a definite possibility, you’re as good as dead. Most of the security people there are corrupt and are looking for bribes. I spent 35 years traveling the world and I consider Yemen right at the top of the list for dangerous Countries. If you think it’s a great adventure to go there: Have fun, and good luck. I hope we don’t see a video of you being beheaded.

  6. Jana

    People have a bad tendency to say “It was safe, I felt safe.”. Feeling safe doesn’t mean it is, having nothing bad happen to you doesn’t mean it is safe. I’m not trying to be paranoid. I’ve traveled through places where it isn’t recommended (all through Palestine, the Kurdish region of Turkey). I can appreciate wanting to travel somewhere, assessing any risk involved, and then deciding you’re down to go. This post and people’s comments ignore real danger, though. I love reading people’s travel experiences, and you can say you felt safe, but to say it is safe is dishonest. In reality, most people travel and come home fine, but there is a much larger chance you will be kidnapped or murdered in Yemen than in many other countries. If you feel comfortable with that risk, and the country sounds good to you, then go, travel as safely as you can, and have an amazing trip. I just don’t think shrugging off signs that a place is unstable is honest, there are soldiers everywhere because it is more dangerous than many other places.

  7. mahsa

    Hi,

    Thanks for sharing your information. I’m traveling on a motorcycle and thinking about finding a boat from djbouti to yemen. Do you think it would be possible & is it safe for a female solo rider?!! Would appreciate any info.

    Anybody thinking of traveling in yemen in jan-feb 2015?

    1. Jay

      Masha – given the situation with al qaeda, kidnappings, hostages being executed, and so on, it would be unwise to travel in Yemen.

    2. hexli

      masha

      the question is not, if it is safe or not – you will not get a visa ! and for travelling around yemen you need travel permits which you can get from the tourist police in sanaa. well, actually these days the travel agencys get it for you as you can not travel independend. and only trough a local travel agency you can get a visa. as they are fully responsible for your safety, they will not allow you to go somewhere alone. i might be in yemen around mid jannuary for a few weeks …. so if you make it to sanaa, would love to meet you.

  8. MMaxey1952

    Yemen is undergoing a very difficult transition with the Houthi takeover of Sana’a and large parts of the rest of the country. At least one European citizen has been killed at a Houthi check point and kidnapping of foreigners is increasing. The US Embassy is on “Ordered Departure” which means most of the personnel have been evacuated due to security concerns. Please research the kidnapping issue in Yemen and the nationalities involved — it does not seem to matter whether a person is a US citizen or European. With the price of release of a kidnapped foreigner in the multiple millions of dollars, there is a great incentive for bad things to happen.

  9. Alex

    I enjoyed your comments and observations on travel in Yemen. Yemen is safe if you get help from the locals, professionals in tourism and hotels. Ali’s comments has to do with politics between the south/north regarding the Unification of Yemen. Aden, sanaa, Ibb and Taiz are very safe for international travelers. I am an Arab American and I love Yemen.

  10. Tate

    My son said DO NOT TRAVEL TO YEMEN NOW!!! He’s a 29 year old U.S. Marine that’s stationed in Yemen right now. If he tells me that it’s not safe for travelers to visit Yemen right now, I’m going to take his word for it. (He told me this yesterday)

    1. Evanes

      He will tell you the same one year later. Yemen is still the same. Tourists are still coming.

      But your son is not on any safe place for sure. So wherever is he I would not go there. I Just wish him luck and good health.

      I was never scared in Yemen. I went there twice. In summer 2013 and in the end of 2013 for another two months. Everything was okay for me. I am European citizen.

    2. Deborah Houston

      Yes I was in Yemen during this time. From December 2012-feb2015 it was indeed dangerous BC the looming govt take over. Your son had knowledge of the situation and if he said don’t go I wouldn’t go.

  11. Ian

    Awesome! glad you were able to enjoy your time there!! I too travel, not nearly as much but have been able to scratch my itch by 31 countries so far…some for personal, some for military. I now work at CENTCOM in Tampa. So, I preface this with knowing my background and indoctrination into a core belief system that comes a bit different than most.

    Travel to Yemen, while it may have been safe for you, you are an experienced traveler to know how to handle cultural differences. Most basic travelers don’t, and therefore our warnings need to make sure we cover our citizens for obvious reasons.

    To add, not every country gets 6 armed guards, because not every country has to endure the threats we get. And they are real, and do carry out attacks. I read the reports almost weekly on various attacks. While most people are friendly, the simplest most non-intently offensive thing can upset the populace, and for that reason, we caution travel. The same can be said of Ankara, which “appears” to be much safer, yet, can easily turn into some ignorant fool debating Christianity while shopping in a carpet store blaspheming Allah.

    Regardless of how safe you felt, I assure you, your presence there is a threat, and can be a target, no matter how safe you think you acted. Still, I do agree the threat causes people to go elsewhere causing them to miss out on a wonderful experience.

    The same was said to me when I visited Cartagena, Medellin, and Bogota…safe travels!

  12. Mohammed Almoqri

    Dear Earl,

    I was writing about tourism challenge in Yemen and came across your website. I have been to the U.S and experience the generousity and welcome of Americans. I am really surprising when was your last visit to Yemen and are you willing to visit this country again?

    Thanx

  13. Laura

    OMG
    I was Invited to go to a wedding in Yemen with a friend but didn’t bcuz of all the bad publicity. I so regret it.
    I have traveled extensively, alone.
    Older female has advantages
    If you’d like a partner sometime let me know
    Photos you took ate fantastic
    Thanks

  14. Joey Lehman

    Hi, Earl!

    I found your account to be quite inspiring. I must admit that I have been leery of solidifying my plans to Yemen but after reading your story have decided to take the plunge!

    I am planning my trip in January. You mentioned that it is best to go with an organization. Were you on a formal guided tour? If so, can you recommend a specific company? I’m really in “the blue” here. Very little is written about travel to Yemen so I would be most appreciative of your advice. Again, thank you for sharing your story!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Joey – You don’t have to go on a formal guided tour (as in with a group) but you need to use a local agency to organize your visa, transportation (you need a car and driver because foreigners are not allowed to use buses and other local transportation) and accommodation (apart from Sanaa, it’s hard to organize accommodation on your own). The company I used is Eternal Yemen and they were excellent every step of the way. I’ve sent many people to them since I’ve been and everyone has been quite happy with their services as well.

  15. Pat

    Dear Earl,

    Quote: “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” Did you feel somehow special or privileged about this? I personally think is terrible and having soldiers around you makes you a sitting duck and definitely more conspicuous than you were with your guide only.. Soldier following around is something that should definitely worry potential travelers! Happy to have an Italian passport

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Pat – No, I didn’t feel special. It’s just something that is done as a gesture as all foreigners, regardless of nationality, are only allowed to go to certain areas that are considered safe and secure. With that said, I’d say you’d be a much easier target for kidnapping if you didn’t have any soldiers with you as it would take about two seconds for someone to drive up, push you in the car and take off. Having the soldiers would be a deterrent for the average tribesmen who do the kidnapping as they would want it to be as simple as possible.

  16. Deborah Houston-Unis

    Im a USC and I lived in Yemen now for 18 months. The life here is good the only bad is that as a women I have to stay inside the house all day. I literally dont go outside for weeks at a time and it is really smothering. My husband says he has to keep me on the safe side because not only is there a battle with Al Qaeda but also with the local mafia and Al Houwthi. They dont like foreginers because they feel as if we are infringing and influencing their culture in a negative way. But ne way, dont let that scare you. Just like earl said, do more research and come with an open mind and vigilence.

  17. Becki | Backpacker Becki

    Brilliant round up. I recently looked on my government website (UK) to plan a trip and the entire country is covered in red as a serious no-go zone. I’m certainly up for the challenge and not believing the official hype after reading this, although of course to travel cautiously and be aware of any changes out there. What a great adventure – which I may have to pick your brains further on!

  18. Ian

    I recently went solo for two days in and around Sana’a. Dual US/Irish citizen. I went through the tour company Eternal Yemen. They planned a personally itinerary with a day outside the city to Manakah, as well as a shorter trip to the Rock Palace. Also did a walking tour of the Old City. Felt safe at all times, but the common sense “don’t discuss politics or religion” rules apply. The people were extraordinarily friendly and appreciative of the fact that any tourists were there due to the image portrayed by the media.

    I live/work in a large city in the Northeast of the US. I felt no less safe walking around Sana’a.

  19. Ali

    I came back from Aden/Mukalla a month ago and I would not recommend anyone to visit Yemen in this moment of time. You can’t visit places without being questioned. I’m a Yemeni British Citizen and the fact that I am Yemeni, it really doesn’t matter who you are, they just don’t care. Military checkpoints just puts you into fear. I’m sure you don’t want people with Ak47s staring at you because you have nice clothes on. All these guys want is power, if you don’t give it to them, they will shoot you down. Salam.

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  21. stephanie

    Hey steve I have also been searching how yemen is. I am hispanic but born in california and my husband is yemeny we are both going for vacations. I want to know how much do you waste on food. And do womans just stay home. And is it dangerous for woman to go out during diffrent times of hour. Everyone tells me men are crazy and when they see a woman especially american they will try to kidnap her or rape. Im still going and hope to god nothibg bad happens but people always talk and exagerate everyone tells me your not scared. And I say no why would I be scared I will cover like everyone else. I just want to know how much will I spend if im there for 2 months. Thanks a lot and yemen Looks so calm and beautiful I want to get a house there inshallah.

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