There is no simple or clear answer to whether or not Yemen is safe for travelers. A blanket yes or no for the entire country is inadequate without first understanding the risks in its various regions spread across the Arabian Peninsula.
Yemen Is A Huge Place
Over 527,000 square kilometers, including the Socotra archipelago, Yemen is larger than New Zealand and the United Kingdom combined. It’s difficult to decipher the State Department’s travel warnings and those of other government agencies because they basically tell you not to go to the country at all. Roughly speaking, the north and western parts of the country are safer than the more unstable provinces in the south and eastern desert regions, travel to which are prohibited by the government.
- Current Travel Restrictions – My host Eternal Yemen has a list, which changes frequently, of the areas travelers are currently not allowed to go.
- Is Socotra Safe? – Yes. There have been no reported kidnappings or terrorist attacks there…ever.
Although experts in risk mitigation consider Yemen to be the country where foreigners are most likely to be abducted in the Middle East [PDF], there are more common safety concerns you should consider first.
The Odds Are In Your Favor But The Numbers Aren’t Comforting
Getting in a car is probably the most dangerous thing you’ll do in Yemen, a country with one of the world’s highest traffic accident fatality rates. So while the views from Al Reyadi are one reason why you would want to go to Yemen – those mountain roads meandering up there are why you want to hire an experienced driver for the journey.
- The Driver To Hire In Yemen – Get in touch with Eternal Yemen and ask for Ali. He has over 30 years of experience driving tourists around Yemen and is one of the kindest people I’ve met in my travels. (Who’s also happy to share some of his khat with you.)
Most Yemenis and expats living in the country will tell you that Yemen is safe and your chances of being kidnapped or being hurt in a terrorist attack are very low. Technically correct but the statistics aren’t reassuring.
- How Likely Are You To Be Kidnapped In Yemen? – Foreigners are kidnapped at a rate of about 1-2 per month, with 19 total in 2012. (Your chance of being kidnapped in Phoenix, Arizona is about 6.5 times greater.)
- Special Treatment For US Citizens – As I found out traveling with Wandering Earl, who describes if Yemen is safe for travelers, US citizens get army escorts in parts of the country. Turkish citizens like myself and other nationalities, not so much.
Out of 500,000 tourists per year, these numbers put Yemen 10th globally in terms of kidnappings for ransom [PDF]. Fortunately, that’s what most kidnappings in Yemen are about – money and prisoner exchanges. The average kidnapping lasting 1-2 days with your odds of being released unharmed being pretty good.
Precautions To Take When Traveling In Yemen
Mainland Yemen isn’t too perilous to visit and the World Economic Forum considers Egypt to be a more dangerous destination for tourists. You can however prepare for worst-case scenarios prior to and during your trip in several ways. If you plan on leaving Sana’a, get in touch with a reputable local company (I recommend Eternal Yemen) to arrange the necessary travel permits and provide a driver for you. Remember, the roads are by far the deadliest thing you’ll encounter in Yemen.
- Kidnapping And Ransom Insurance – In addition to asking if you should get travel insurance, a separate policy covering terrorist attacks or ransoms may be prudent. (It’s also a good idea to be very nice to your rich relatives just before your trip.) One of my favorites, Clements, has such plans at reasonable rates.
Also, purchasing a local SIM card on your unlocked phone is an inexpensive way to keep in with home and to contact the appropriate embassy if needed. Finally, listen to the advice of locals and hotel managers, who have a friendly, yet passive, Yemeni way of saying, “it’s safe, but you probably shouldn’t go there.”