Join a group of like-minded travelers in our next scheduled tour in Yemen:
November 23rd to 28th, 2023
Yemen is a country which has been taken from a fairy tale, a destination that overawes each and every visitor who is captivated by the mesmerizing architecture that dots the unexpectedly radiant and fertile valleys that comprise the country.
Local men strolling the streets with their colorful jambiya – traditional dagger – are the cherry on top that make Yemen such a unique country, because there’s nothing like Yemen; not only in terms of sights, but years of isolation have made Yemen an incredibly raw country, where travelers can still experience Yemeni rural life as it used to be centuries ago.
Traditionally grouped in tribes with strong codes of conduct that tend to prevail over the country’s law, their rules dictate that one must protect their guest, with their own life if needed, and treat them like one more member of their family.
The result is a particularly warm and welcoming society whose main aim is always watching over your safety and to feed you with the best honey and Yemeni food.
Yemen is certainly one of the most legendary countries in the world.
In this travel guide to Yemen, you will find the latest, updated info on how to travel to Yemen, including safety, how to get a visa and more.
Table of Contents
As of today, there are no COVID-19 restrictions for visiting Yemen.
IATI Insurance is one of the few providers that offers full Coronavirus coverage, not only when it comes to treatment, but also cancellation costs in case you tested positive before departure.
It’s also the only travel insurance that covers travel in Yemen.
Readers of Against the Compass can get an exclusive 5% discount.
Yemen is a complicated country which is going through an even more complicated conflict, and it’s important to understand what are you getting into.
Before visiting Yemen, you should know that the country is divided into two separate, big regions:
By the way, the capital Sanaa is in North Yemen.
In the 19th century, North Yemen was under Ottoman rule, while Britain controlled the South.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918, North Yemen became an independent state, but the British ruled over South Yemen until 1967.
After the British withdrawal in 1967, North and South Yemen were two separate UN countries until they unified in 1991, becoming the Yemen Arab Republic.
As a traveler, you need to be aware that, despite the unification, this division is still part of every-day Yemen, both politically and culturally.
First of all, all the bad things you hear about Yemen, like famine and aerial bombings – the world’s worst humanitarian crisis according to some sources – are mostly happening in North Yemen, a region today controlled by the Houthis, a militia that belongs to a branch of Shia Islam, who want to take control of the country.
Saudi Arabia is trying to get rid of them.
Update March 2023: Now that Iran and Saudi are in peace, nobody knows what will happen
South Yemen on the other hand, is controlled by the Yemeni Government, which is extremely pro-Saudi.
However, the members of the Government do not live there anymore; they are all exiled in Saudi Arabia, leaving the country mostly under the control of the Yemeni Army. It’s quite a mess.
To make things even more complicated, part of South Yemen is controlled by the STC (Southern Transitional Council), a separatist group who want South Yemen to become an independent country.
They are supported by the United Arab Emirates, who fight against Saudi over power, believe it or not.
As a foreign traveler, North Yemen is today off limits. More on that in the following section.
Today, North Yemen – and that includes the capital Sanaa – is practically impossible to visit.
The area is not under the jurisdiction of the Yemeni Government, hence getting the necessary security clearances and permits for going through all the checkpoints is difficult.
Difficult, not impossible, but, even with all the necessary permits, there is a high chance of getting arrested, like happened to a friend of mine who spent one week traveling in North Yemen, until the Houthis decided to lock him up for a week, giving him a very hard time.
You might bump into a fixer who sells you the yummy, irresistible idea of traveling all the way to Sanaa but in my opinion, this is still a bit sketchy, and my recommendation would be to wait until things calm down a bit more.
I’ll be updating this post as soon as I figure out more about visiting Sanaa.
Fun fact: How many tourists visit Yemen mainland each year? Less than 200 people visit Yemen (mainland) each year.
From the western city of Aden all the way to the border with Oman, South Yemen comprises around two thirds of the country, but the only place you can visit is a region named Hadramut, the only stable region in the country.
That’s where I traveled to.
Hadramut is a beautiful, mostly rural region home to jaw-dropping valleys and postcard-like mud-villages often dominated by hypnotic palaces once owned by the local sultans.
Shibam, a city entirely built of 9-story mud-brick buildings in the middle of the desert, is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site and by far, the highlight of Yemen.
Hadramut by itself is certainly worth the trip to mainland Yemen.
Socotra is a remote Yemeni island, which has unique geology and flora, as well as being home to a Yemeni society with significant cultural differences due to their isolation from Yemen mainland.
For many years, Socotra has been sort of a hotspot for intrepid travelers looking for some real off the beaten path adventures. The island is used to receiving visitors, so you can find some relatively developed tourism infrastructure run by a few local tour operators.
In addition to sparing one day for chewing khat, visiting one of the many khat markets with tens of stalls selling all sorts of types and quality of khat is a real highlight.
With their daggers, traditional clothes, smiles and hospitality, meeting Yemenis are an essential part of any trip to Yemen.
This canyon-shaped valley offers plenty of trekking opportunities through unspoiled villages and spectacular views.
The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) advises against all travel to Yemen, including both the Yemeni mainland and Socotra.
I have done safety analysis for several countries – only from a tourist perspective – and my answer to the FCDO advice is always the same: their analysis is extremely biased and based on extremely unlikely scenarios, since they want nothing to do with travelers venturing in those areas if the extremely unlikely happens.
The situation in Hadramut is arguable, yes, but Socotra is an isolated paradise that always stayed at the edge of the conflict, the reason why it keeps receiving thousands of tourists every year.
You have already learnt that, when talking about Yemen, one must be able to differentiate between North Yemen and South Yemen, the first being the apparently dangerous part of the country.
However, I haven’t been in North Yemen, so I can’t really verify whether that region is safe or not.
Actually, nobody does, since you can’t really travel there nowadays.
Similarly, South Yemen is pretty big, but the only place which can be visited is Hadramut, so this section will mainly focus on safety in Hadramut.
This is a difficult question to answer.
When I was traveling around Hadramut, everything felt very safe indeed, and it shouldn’t be a coincidence that Hadramut is the only area in Yemen which foreigners are allowed to visit.
Nonetheless, we can’t deny the fact that from 2016 to 2018, Hadramut had a large presence of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, terrorist groups that were even controlling the regional capital: Mukalla.
For nearly two years, suicide bombings and actual fighting happened nearly every day.
The situation, however, has drastically improved, since the area has been cleared up from terrorists, hence they decided to open it for international tourists.
Still, one must travel to Hadramut with extra caution but at the end of the day, you will certainly do that because:
It’s difficult to say whether Hadramut is safe or not: your trip to Yemen will be rather short, you will always be with armed escorts and an expert fixer who knows where to go and how to deal with complicated situations.
Would it be safe if you traveled to Yemen as an independent backpacker?
We don’t know because nobody has done it.
A visa is strictly required for traveling to Yemen.
Good news is that all nationalities can apply for a tourist visa, an easy, straightforward process – as long as you can afford it.
Bad news is that you can only get it through a local fixer, with whom you must book a full tour – like in Syria – and it’s usually pretty expensive.
Join our Yemen tour and get your visa instantly, with no hassle!
Typically, the visa takes around 1 full month to process, but this is Yemen, and it’s recommended to get in touch with your local fixer/tour operator way before that.
Everything can be arranged on WhatsApp, and all you need to do is send a copy of your passport, a passport photo and a filled-out form.
In addition to the Yemeni visa, your local tour operator/fixer will also apply for a security clearance, something needed for going through all checkpoints.
Your fixer should send you your visa via email and all you have to do is print it out and collect your stamp upon arrival in Yemen.
The visa process for Socotra is pretty similar, but it’s a distinct process that shall be done with Socotra-specific tour operators. A visa for mainland Yemen is not valid for Socotra and viceversa.
Don’t travel to Yemen without travel insurance. I recommend IATI Insurance because:
I visited Yemen in the month of November. Days were warm but rarely over 30ºC and evenings were pleasant.
Very outdated (1999) but the only available guidebook to the country.
Indispensable book to understand everything related to today’s conflict.
My friends and fellow travelers Sian and Bob just published this pictorial guide to Yemen which also contains fresh and actionable advice to the country.
Wanna travel to Yemen with Against the Compass?
Join a group of like-minded travelers in our next scheduled tour in Yemen:
November 23rd to 28th (2023)
Can you travel in Yemen mainland independently?
Today, independent travel in Yemen is strictly forbidden, including within Hadramut.
My fixer in Yemen told me the story of a Japanese traveler who tried to escape while having an after-lunch break at the hotel, time which the tourist took advantage of to buy or rent a motorbike.
He was detained at the first checkpoint and wasn’t allowed to leave until the fixer showed up.
Moreover, traveling in Yemen is so restricted that you can’t even change your itinerary once permits have been issued, because those permits must specify the dates you will be in each area of Yemen.
Remember that independent travel in Yemen is not possible nowadays, like no way.
Against the Compass, however tends to always have scheduled group expeditions into Yemen.
The next one is scheduled for:
Learn more about our Tours for Yemen
Today, the only feasible way to travel to the Yemeni mainland by air is with Yemenia Airways via Cairo to a city named Seiyun.
There are 3 to 4 flights a week and tickets must be purchased via a tour agent based in Cairo, the contact of which should be shared by your Yemeni tour operator.
In my case, I reached out the mentioned tour agent on WhatsApp, who told me to wire her the total cost of the flight ticket to an Egyptian bank account.
The round-trip ticket from Cairo to Seiyun cost 870USD.
After a week, she acknowledged receipt of the money and sent me a copy of my flight ticket, also on WhatsApp.
It was a strange but a pretty simple and legit process.
Yemen shares a border with Oman and Saudi Arabia.
The border is fully open because the region of Salalah in Oman leads directly to Hadramut.
Nevertheless, my fixer stopped picking up travelers from the Omani border because as of today, the scenic coastal road that leads to Mukallah is controlled by the STC, therefore it remains closed to foreigners.
Alternatively, you can use the northern road, but that involves driving over 600km (one-way) through an empty desert, and that’s something he doesn’t really want to do anymore, especially because he would have to come all the way from Seiyun and back, a 1200km journey.
With proper clearance, you can use the Al Wadeeah border.
I know a few people who have crossed into Saudi from Yemen using that border, but I don’t know anyone who has actually entered Yemen from there.
Travel reports on that matter are welcome.
Chewing khat in Yemen
Khat is a local plant and a drug – similar to coca leaves – typically consumed in Yemen but also in the Horn of Africa, especially in Somalia, southeast Ethiopia, Djibouti and North Kenya. Yemeni men are addicted to it and basically, life stops every day after lunch time for chewing khat. It’s an actual social problem because khat isn’t cheap and there are many Yemeni men who spend their wages on this drug rather than buying food for their families. Still, if you are traveling in Yemen, you must spare one afternoon to chew khat with the locals. If you buy the best quality one, it will give you an extra dose of energy and that night you won’t sleep.
Yemen is actual Arabia, the place where it is believed the Arabs come from, and the birthplace of the Sabaeans, a group of Ancient South Arabians who founded Sheba, home to worldwide famous Queen of Sheba, all stories that appear in the Quran and the Hebrew Bible.
Despite its location, Yemen is the only country in the peninsula that doesn’t belong to the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) an agreement between the Gulf States – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – similar to the EU.
Yemenis are purely Arabs but from a traveling perspective, sometimes I feel they do have a slight South Asian (Pakistani) twist, in the way they eat and behave, different from the rest of the Gulf States.
This shouldn’t be surprising, however, since the coast of Yemen has been benefited from the frankincense trade for centuries, receiving visitors from many parts of the world, specially from South Asia.
They are grouped in tribes and, similarly to Pashtuns in Afghanistan, their tribal laws dictate their daily life.
Like Pashtuns, Yemenis treat their guests even better than family members but at the same time, they are really, really conservative and their acts might be subject to certain rules that may create absolute rejection to international visitors.
For example, without wanting you to fall into a Yemeni stereotype, a woman having extra marital relations is considered one of the most dishonorable things that could happen to a family.
In the city of Seiyun, an unmarried woman was caught in the house hanging out with an unrelated man. They weren’t caught having sex, but they were just sitting together. After doing their own research and investigation, the family decided to murder her by cutting her head off.
Such is the strength and importance of their tribal laws that in these cases, the police decide not to intervene.
By the way, this was an extreme case carried out by an uneducated family. Most Yemenis condemned such an act.
In Yemen, they speak Modern Standard Arabic.
Islam is the state religion, 35% of the population being Shia and 65% Sunni.
Yemen is the most conservative country I have ever been to, even more than Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, you need to remember that I only visited the region of Hadramut, a rural and remote area of Yemen, where people are probably more traditional than in the capital Sanaa.
Still, I was particularly shocked by some of the things I experienced.
Except for one beggar, we never saw the face of a woman, but all of them were wearing the niqab, which covers everything but the eyes.
The only female interaction we had was the day we got hissed at by a local woman while we were sitting in the car.
All we did was smile at her, but she reacted by hissing at us.
She basically told you to fuck off – our fixer said.
One day, while walking around a village, we heard some young women talking and laughing, something we had not witnessed in that country yet.
They are very liberal – our fixer said. And the reason was that those young girls had been born in Saudi and they came to Yemen to visit their family.
While Saudi women might seem extremely conservative, you are likely to talk with them when you are traveling in Saudi. A Saudi woman wearing a niqab asking for a selfie isn’t rare, plus they work in many supermarkets and shops.
Local women with long hats
When traveling around Yemen, you will notice many local women wearing some pretty high hats. They are farmers and they use those hats to protect themselves from the heat. Apparently, that shape helps to keep their heads cool. These woman are among the poorest in Yemen and they despise being photographed.
Yemeni food is heavy and mostly based on meat and rice, but I believe it is the best food in the peninsula.
In fact, Yemeni mandi is one of the most common dishes in Oman, UAE, and Saudi.
Yemeni restaurants don’t usually to have tables but people gather on a circle on the floor and eat with their hands from the same plate.
For a long time, Yemen was believed to produce some of the best and purest honey in the world, coming from bees that are fed exclusively from the flowers of the Sidr tree, which also has therapeutic properties.
Honey plays a big role in Yemen’s economy and according the UN, more than 100,000 households depend on it for their livelihoods.
Yemen is a dry country, you can’t buy alcohol legally.
Yemen might possibly be the most challenging country in the world to travel as a female traveler, way more difficult than in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, foreign women don’t need to wear the burqa, but a hijab is enough, like in Iran.
However, in the region of Hadramut, foreign women must wear the niqab in all public spaces, markets and pretty much everywhere, but in the hotel and in the wild.
You may remove your niqab when you are in the car, but not when going through villages and checkpoints.
As long as you are accompanied by men, traveling in Yemen as a woman is safe.
If you removed your niqab, you’d get a lot of attention but if you are wearing it, nobody will dare to tell you a thing.
In Yemen, they use Yemeni Rials (YRI) and approximately:
$1 = 250 YRI
This is the official currency.
Recently, in South Yemen, they have started using a different, unofficial currency also named Yemeni Rials, but with a different value.
With South Yemen Rials,
$1 = around 1000 YRI
I never understood why South Yemen adopted a different currency and how the value was defined but, in any case, if traveling to Hadramut, that’s the only currency you will see.
Your debit or credit card will be useless in Yemen, so do bring everything in cash.
The only currency which I recommend bringing is US dollars. They didn’t even want to exchange my Euros, at an acceptable rate at least.
Your US dollars should be brand-new, they are very strict about this.
They actually found a tiny ink stain in one of my bills and they didn’t accept it, even though I received a bunch of dirty Yemeni Rials in exchange.
A tour to Yemen booked through a local fixer is always all-inclusive, so it’s difficult for me to say what are the actual prices of the most typical things, including hotels and restaurants.
What I can tell you however is that a solo trip to Yemen is expensive, with prices starting at $4,500 for a solo 6-day tour, excluding international flights.
If you want to travel to Yemen for less, I recommend joining a group.
It will be difficult for me to write much in this section since I only moved around in a private car, and you are certainly going to do the same.
I stayed in two different hotels:
Hawta Palace Hotel: a traditional boutique hotel in the city of Seiyun. It has a pleasant garden where many local families hang out in the weekends by paying a fee.
Hayd Aljazeel Resort: a mountain resort in Wadi Doa’n with awesome views to the valley.
Both were pretty amazing and I believe the two best options in the area. Other than that, I don’t recall seeing many hotels besides basic ones.
Can you buy a SIM card in Yemen?
You can, but in the region of Hadramut, 4G barely works.
We did have some decent Wi-Fi in the hotel in Seiyun but that’s all what we got during our trip.
You should always use a VPN when you travel, especially when you connect to public Wi-Fi networks.
Your connection will be much safer.
Moreover, you will be able to access content which is typically censored in Yemen.
I recommend ExpressVPN – Extremely easy to use, fast and cheap.
If you want to learn more about VPN, check: Why you need a VPN for traveling.
📢 In my Travel Resources Page you can find the list of all the sites and services I use to book hotels, tours, travel insurance and more.
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