A to Z of Adventure Travel: Y is for Yemen

3 07 2009


Although one of the Middle East’s most spectacular countries and home to four World Heritage sites, in recent years Yemen has become better known for the kidnapping of tourists than it has for tourism itself.


Located on the Arabian Peninsula and bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman, Yemen is an ancient land of rugged desert, magnificent coastline and historic architectural treasures. With a limited infrastructure, only hardy tourists have ventured to its capital Sana’a and the country’s striking interior, but those who have explored it  consistently rate it amongst their favourite destinations.yemen


Yemen is a magic land that has barely changed in appearance since biblical times. A country of fortified mountain villages and remote desert communities, untouched beaches and mud brick skyscrapers all with their own distinct and rich culture and heritage. While some of the country’s best sights are neglected and in need of preservation, all capture the imagination in a way that sights in more developed countries simply can’t.


In Wadi Hadramaut there sits Shibam, one of the most striking cities in the world. Dubbed the ‘Manhattan of the desert’, its skyline is comprised of more than 500 mud-brick skyscrapers of up to 8-floors in height surrounded by an earth wall. Not far away is the spectacular cliff-side village of Al Hajjarain while the country’s most important seaport, Aden, is purportedly where Noah built his ark. Algebra is said to have been invented in the 9th century in the city of Zabid, once one of the most important centres of learning in the entire Islamic and Arabic world and the region’s capital from the 13th to 15th century.  Just off the coast, the Socotra Archipelago was mentioned by Marco Polo and is home to an area of such rich biodiversity that it is often likened to the Galapagos.


Yemen’s capital, Sana’a is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. Its architecture gives the city the impression of being frozen in time, and its old city is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A place of bustling markets, towering mosques and ornate houses, Sana’a is one of the world’s most unique capitals.


Although there have been problems in the capital, the majority of troubles faced by tourists have been experienced away from Sana’a. Anyone venturing away from the capital must register with the Yemen Tourist Police and it is highly recommended that travel be made with a recognised tour operator rather than independently. The first tourist kidnappings were made by tribesmen who used their hostages as bargaining chips in negotiations with authorities. The hostages were generally treated well and released peacefully. Many visitors later proclaimed the experience was the highlight of their visit, but several years ago a kidnapping ended in a shoot-out with police and a number of the hostages were killed or injured. More recently however, branches of al-Qaeda have become involved with much more brutal consequences.


Anyone contemplating Yemen should be aware that many western countries have issued travel advisories against all travel there. While there are many responsible national and international tour operators in Yemen who have perfect safety records and take no chances with their clients, such government warnings may render travel insurance invalid.


A photographer’s dream, an explorer’s delight, a visit to Yemen is well worth the lack of luxury, but no visit should be taken without proper consideration.



Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Photo by: Yemen Tourism


Most Unusual Travel Insurance Claims

13 04 2009


The Nakuru Cat Burglar is remarkable for its resemblance to the baboon. (Nakuru, Kenya)


Though I’ve had more tropical diseases than the average petri dish and once had to survive in Iceland for 24 hours without so much as a toothbrush and clean socks, I have been fortunate that I’ve only once had to make a claim on my travel insurance.


Travel insurance is one of those things that I faithfully buy but hope never to get my money’s worth from. Over the years I have probably spent enough money to pay for a pretty decent vacation, but so far apart from one visit to a doctor in London (see “How To Get A Head in Africa” 10 July 2008), I’ve never got back a penny – but I have scored a ton of peace-of-mind.


The silence at the end of the telephone line when I called the insurance company about my tick suggests it might well still be discussed around the water cooler. But I am glad to know that I am not the only one who has entertained or bemused travel insurance companies. Here are a few others that are likely pinned to a bulletin board beside Terry the Tick:



        A pensioner, whose false teeth fell out while he vomited over the side of a cruise ship, put in a claim to his travel insurers for new dentures under “lost baggage”.


        A young traveller, distracted by the appearance of a group of women in bikinis, broke his nose when he walked into a bus shelter in Athens.


        A traveller lost his wallet in a drain in Israel. Instead of filing a police report and making a claim through his insurance, he instead stuck his hand down the drain – only to be stung by a poisonous scorpion. He ended up claiming for both a lost wallet and a hospital visit.


        A man who claimed for holiday cancellation when refused boarding was turned down by his insurance company when it emerged his ticket was for a flight from Manchester, New Hampshire…not from Manchester in the North West of England.


        Returning from India, a traveller filed a claim with his insurance company for $1100 worth of “Bombay Mix” snack food that he had lost from his luggage enroute. The insurance company performed a few quick calculations and determined that at less than $2 per 250g bag, the man would have had to have misplaced more than 137 kilograms of munchies…and refused to pay.


        A couple on vacation in Malaysia returned to their lodge to find that monkeys had climbed in through an open window, stolen their clothes and scattered them throughout the neighbouring jungle.


        A family’s camping holiday was ruined when a parachutist from a nearby airbase missed his target and landed squarely on their tent, destroying their equipment. Their insurer rejected their claims as they weren’t insured against accidental damage.


And in the category of needing a vacation to recover from a vacation:


        A holidaymaker in Sri Lanka needed hospital treatment after a coconut fell on her head while she was reading in the shade below.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Bangkok, We Have a Problem

4 12 2008


Watching the recent news of the demonstrations at Bangkok’s airports, it’s hard not to feel sorry for those stranded and desperately trying to get home. Although most of us dream of forever lying beneath a palm tree without any plan to return home, the reality is a great deal of stress and frustration and probably a lot of unexpected cost.lax3-mw


The recent events in Thailand were unusual. People are occasionally delayed because of inclement weather, industrial action or disasters but rarely for as long as Thailand’s recent interruption. However, if it happens to you, what can you do?


When an airline’s flights are cancelled, they generally re-book you on their first available flight whether that’s later the same day, the next morning or a week later. If you’re lucky, they may re-book you on a partner airline that will get you home or to your destination a bit quicker. However, when thousands of people are affected across several airlines, it takes a long time for the back-log to be cleared by which time you’re likely sick of Pina Coladas and completely over the smell of coconut oil.


Contacting your airline just to find out what’s happening can be an ordeal in itself, especially in another language or in a country with a limited infrastructure. Of course, if the cause of your frustration is labour strife, there won’t be anyone for you to speak to at all! And, given the number of people in the same situation as yourself, you may well find yourself sleeping on the airport floor for a few days because hotel rooms will be precious commodities…especially affordable ones.


It is in situations like this that travel agents come into their own. Agents can check availability with all airlines, via indirect routes or from all airports within a reasonable distance – not just that from which you were originally scheduled to travel. They can advise you of your airline’s re-protection or refund policy or start to investigate your insurance coverage…they can also assist you with hotel reservations or transport to other airports. In some cases they may have a local contact who can help you on the ground, or they themselves may have first-hand experience of the city and be able to offer you some useful advice.


Although major disruptions of the magnitude of Thailand’s are very unusual, being able to actually speak to a calm, concerned and helpful friend at home can go a long way to relieving your burden of stress and help you feel less alone if ever similarly stuck. Of course, your agent may demand a box of chocolate-covered macadamias or a snow-globe of a frolicking dolphin, but that’s a small price to pay for a friend-in-need!



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

How To Avoid Getting Stranded

22 09 2008

“If it’s a desert island, why wasn’t he called ‘Man Sundae?”  (Cape Tribulation, Queensland, Australia) 

For most of my life I rather fancied being stranded on a sun-drenched white sand desert island, but only if it included a few umbrella’d drinks, a bountiful supply of food, a comfortable bed, a fan wallah and a way to get home whenever I became bored. Realistically, it’s not likely to happen unless my private yacht runs aground on Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island just after he’s re-stocked and left for several months abroad.


However, the possibility of becoming stranded overseas is a real one on the rare occasion when airlines or tour operators become bankrupt. And unlike Man Friday and Benn Gunn, there’s little romantic about it when it happens to you even if it’s in some idyllic bliss.


Although you can not be 100% safe, there certainly are precautions you can take to minimise the chances of being a modern-day Robinson Crusoe…except without the straw hat and talking volleyball.


1)     Perform a little due-diligence into your airline or tour operator. A quick internet search should find out the organisation’s background and basics of its financial or labour situation. A search for news stories should give you a hint if something’s not right.


2)     Book through a travel agency. Not only are travel agencies covered by government-mandated travel compensation funds in many places, but people in the industry have an ear to the ground and often hear about financial problems or instability before anything makes it to the press or the public. In addition, your travel agent can assist you to re-book your trip or to get you home in the quickest and most economical manner if the worst happens.


3)     Pay by credit card. Most credit card companies will still refund your payment if a company goes bankrupt before you have received your goods or services. If you pay by cash, you don’t have that protection.


4)     Check insurance. Some insurance companies include coverage if your travel provider goes bankrupt before you travel or will assist you if you are stranded away from home. Have your travel agent advise you on any available protection.



Given the hundreds of airlines, charter companies and tour operators throughout the world, bankruptcies are still very rare. However, since vacations are still great luxuries for most of us and something that we work very hard to be able to afford, choose very carefully, and eagerly anticipate, the more we can do to avoid a life experience as trying as Madonna’s “Swept Away”, the better!



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan