TARIM, Yemen – Workers fix potholes, paint mosques and refurbish historic buildings in this sleepy city in Yemen’s vast Hadramaut region, where authorities are seeking to lure back tourists scared away by al Qaeda attacks.
Tarim is getting a face-lift before it replaces Qayrawan in Tunisia next month as the “capital of Islamic culture”, an honor that rotates annually among cities in the Islamic world.
Yemen hopes the title will help revive tourism, an economic mainstay which collapsed after an al Qaeda suicide bomber killed four South Korean tourists in another Hadramaut city a year ago.
They had been visiting Shibam, a UNESCO World Heritage site dubbed the “Manhattan of the Desert” for its 16th century mud-brick tower houses rising up to 16 storeys high.
“Terrorism has hit tourism seriously. We hope there will be a rise in the numbers of tourists in the future,” said Muadh al- Shihabi, director of the Tarim cultural capital project.
Officials said security has improved with a tourist police now present at sights, museums and hotels. Soldiers accompany tourists who need a permit to travel by land but it remains to be seen whether security forces stand the test.
Four weeks ago police caught an al Qaeda suspect in Hadramaut with an explosive belt for a suicide attack. The authorities have so far failed to stop frequent kidnappings of foreigners by disgruntled tribesmen who try to press benefits from the government.
A German couple, three children and a Briton have been held since June. Three other foreigners abducted at the same time in the northern province of Saada were found dead. No group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
The Tarim handover ceremony will be a show of government presence in a region where state authority is limited to big cities and main roads. Otherwise tribes dominate the mountains, valleys and deserts of the Hadramaut, covering a third of Yemen’s territory.
Diplomats believe al Qaeda militants might seek refuge there after Sanaa declared war on them following their claim of responsibility for a failed December 25 attack on a U.S. airliner.
The government is also grappling with separatists in the south and Zaidi Shi’ite rebels in the north, where a ceasefire reached this month has calmed seven months of fighting.
Al Qaeda activity is bad news for tourism, a money-spinner for the poor, remote, sparsely populated southeastern region.
Given Western travel warnings, the newly cleaned alleys of Tarim seem unlikely to fill with visitors soon, except perhaps African and Asian students attending the city’s Islamic schools.
Hotels sprang up in the 1990s and a regional airport buzzed with tourists. Nowadays many hotels and souvenir shops are empty or closed — sometimes only a dusty sign remains.
“Tourists used to come in the thousands. They could move freely. It was different,” said the mayor, Mohammed Ramimi.
Now security is tight. Soldiers accompany a party of mainly Yemeni journalists and officials on a visit from Sanaa this week.
“Tarim deserves to be Islamic cultural capital because its people are educated and knowledgeable,” said Saleh al-Hamdi, a souvenir seller who hopes better security will perk up business.
“I’ve lived here for 18 years. There have never been any problems or hate against tourists.”
The government has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the region to improve infrastructure and refurbish houses, creating much-needed jobs. Much of the money came from donors responding to floods that ravaged the region in 2008.
Hadramaut stretches from the port of Mukalla in the south to the Saudi border, through arid wastes broken by cultivated valleys giving way to the desert expanse of the Empty Quarter.
Even before al Qaeda’s resurgence, foreigners were at risk from tribesmen who saw kidnapping as a useful way to extract benefits from a government beset by security challenges.
In Shibam, tourist numbers fell by two-thirds after the attack on the South Koreans, said Mohamed Faisal Ba-Ubeid, head of the local tourism authority. Special tourist police were now in place and more visitors were coming this year.
But the old town’s deserted alleys tell a different story.
“Sometimes 20 tourists come, but sometimes nobody for many days,” said Abdullah Ali, owner of a private heritage museum.