- Khartoum kits out hotels for the visiting -

Khartoum is one of three cities built at the convergence of the Blue and White Niles. The other two are North Khartoum and Omdurman. It was first established as a military outpost in 1821 and is said to derive its name from the narrow spit of land at the convergence of the rivers, which resembles an elephant's trunk or 'khurtum'. In 1834 it became the capital of Sudan and many European explorers used it as a base for their African expeditions.

Khartoum is the second-largest city in Muslim North Africa, although it still retains much of the flavour of an outpost of the British Empire. Today, the city is enlivened by the growing number of international investors checking out potential deals. For the most part however, its quiet, tree-lined streets exude a languid air redolent of colonial days. It is an obvious choice as a base to visit the country's attractions, some of which can be seen in a long day-trip.

ABDULLAH 'There are a lot of nice places here - come and see' Johan Abdullah, resident manager of the Grand Holiday Villa Hotel (GHV), is optimistic that the tourism industry is set to grow. "Now that the government is opening up the economy, a lot of investors are coming in, especially from Britain. "Everybody is coming to Sudan because of the oil. There is a lot of infrastructure to build, but once the tourism sector starts to develop, things will get even better." The GHV, formerly known as the Grand Hotel, was built in the 19th century and served as an office for the Thomas Cook tour company.

Overlooking the Nile, the Grand Hotel played host to Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill. Now an elegant five-star hotel, its modernisation was completed over four years with the help of skilled Malaysian workers. The decision to lease the hotel from the government and take over the management arose out of the Malaysian prime minister's visit to Sudan to discuss oil exploration, says Mr Abdullah. Although the hotel retains its colonial charm, it is now equipped with satellite cable television, modern telecommunications, a Malaysian-style restaurant, a grill room, a cafe overlooking the Nile and three swimming pools, including one exclusively for women. The GHV is one of the chain of Antara Holiday Villas hotels, part of the Kuala Lumpur-based Advance Synergy Group.

Other high-quality hotels include the Hilton, Le Meridien and the Friendship Palace. Mr Abdullah says he would like to achieve a 70-75 per cent occupancy rate this year, which would yield revenues of more than $6 million. Most guests are businessmen, but Mr Abdullah adds: "There are a lot of nice places here and the tourism potential is good. The government is going in the right direction, and I believe it will put things in order.

"The media has given Sudan a bad image, which keeps many people away. I have no real clue as to how we get over this image, other than to say, 'come and see for yourselves'." There are now several tour operators equipped with four-wheel drive vehicles and modern air-conditioned coaches which can take visitors to historic sites. Tourism co-operation agreements have been signed with a number of countries, including Yemen, China, Egypt, Syria and Turkey.

An agreement was signed between the Sudan-based Sabehat Group and the United Arab Emirates' Al Massa Group to boost tourism from the Gulf states to Sudan. The deal sprang from an earlier collaboration with Italian tour operator Red Rose to promote Sudan's heritage and scenic attractions to European tourists. "Sudan is known for its wildlife and we think this tour will be very popular," says Khalid bin Butti al-Suwaidi, chairman of the Al Massa Group. Sudan, together with foreign investors, has already spent more than $60 million on developing the infrastructure for tourism. Sudanese tourism and environment minister Al-Tigani Adam al-Tahir is anticipating an influx of tourists and says the government is working hard to preserve the country's important historical and cultural sites.