The quasi-independent region of Somaliland is trying to market itself as a tourist destination.
On the walls of the Oriental Hotel, built in 1953 and the oldest in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, are new posters depicting beaches and historic sites under the hopeful banner: “Wonderful Somaliland – The Newest Tourist Destination in Africa”.
Developing a tourist industry offers one means to boost Somaliland’s livestock-export-dependent economy and change global perspectives that remain focused on Somalia to the south, continuing not to recognise Somaliland’s 1991 declaration of independence.
No one claims it’s going to be easy, however, especially given Somaliland’s continuing lack of statehood and most Western governments warning citizens against all travel to it as part of Somalia. Fortunately, not all tourists come from the West.
“Ethiopia is our neighbour and with its large population offers a big market,” says Mohammed Abdirizak, manager of Hargeisa-based Safari Travel Tour and Culture travel agency. “Many of its middle class are going to Kenya and Djibouti for holidays when they could be coming here.”
Somaliland has much to attract Ethiopian tourists and other nationalities: 850km of virgin undeveloped coast line, some of the world’s oldest rock art in the Las Geel caves, ancient mosques, traditional camel markets, and more.
“The feedback we get is good,” says Jim Louth, director of UK-based adventure travel company Undiscovered Destinations, which sends small tourist groups to Somaliland twice a year. “They find the local people are very nice, Las Geel with it rock paintings is a big hit, and they like the feel of Hargeisa.”
Already Somaliland’s diaspora are returning to discover a homeland which many never knew after fleeing the 1980s civil war that killed tens of thousands and almost destroyed its infrastructure.
And in addition to Ethiopia’s burgeoning middle class, Somaliland could also benefit as an onward destination for the increasing tourist numbers lured to Ethiopia, says Mark Rowlatt, a 56-year-old habitual traveller planning his Somaliland itinerary from the Oriental Hotel. Estimates for tourists to Somaliland in 2014 are hard to verify and vary from 300 up to 1,300. Though hardly a deluge of visitors, for Somaliland such numbers are a significant step in the right direction. Although improving that trend faces a major obstacle.
“I don’t see tourist numbers increasing while Western governments have travel advisories in place,” Louth says. “Poor old Somaliland is placed with Syria and Yemen, and that means you won’t get hotel groups interested or foreign investment in infrastructure either.”
And infrastructure needs improving – or simply building. The ancient maritime town of Berbera beside the Gulf of Aden offers a rickety and crumbling façade near much of its waterline. “There’s very little at the beaches in terms of infrastructure – there needs to be more,” says Georgina Jamieson, development director for UK-based tourism consultancy service Dunira Strategy. “Though that’s part of the beauty, it’s very untouched. Some say it’s like what Egypt looked like prior to its tourist boom.”
But in addition to inadequate infrastructure – a problem not limited to beaches – dissuading more mainstream tourists, Somaliland’s strict Islamic culture means women swim fully clothed and no cold beers are served at sundown. And already there are increasing reports of thefts on the beach and foreigners being aggressively hassled for money.
“We concluded that over the short term Somaliland’s historical sites are its strongest assets,” Jamieson says of a 2014 Dunira Strategy feasibility study of heritage tourism as a driver of sustainable economic growth in Somaliland.
“The only way we can sell the country’s assets is to have international recognition,” says Jama Musse, director of the Hargeisa Culture Centre. “Tourism will not grow without that recognition. It’s a simple fact. The world does not know about us.”
As a result, Musse explains, foreigners don’t know who to contact, no one takes responsibility, and the types of institutions normally operating abroad to protect tourists’ interests don’t exist. And with no proper authority recognised, there’s the danger of anyone offering advice without accountability. Some say Somaliland’s government isn’t doing enough to support tourism, although it could be excused as distracted by more pressing matters. Somaliland’s economy remains perilously fragile, with non-statehood depriving it of large-scale international support and access to global financial systems and institutions. In addition, poverty is widespread and swathes of young men lounging on streets testify to chronic unemployment rates, all of which could undermine peace and security.
For now, though, Somaliland’s peace holds, and those tourists choosing to take their governments’ travel advisories with a pinch of salt can visit in relative safety. On a late February Friday afternoon at Berbera’s Baathela Beach, one visitor seemed suitably impressed.
“With its small waves it reminds me of the Mediterranean,” says Xavier Vallès, an NGO health consultant in Somaliland who grew up next to the beach in Barcelona, before stripping off to take a dip.