Boats stationed off the coast of Berbera, the harbour city Somaliland has long relied on for its economy
With mile upon mile of untouched golden beaches, corals reefs ripe for divers, ancient artifacts and a population desperate to impress. Somaliland is a country with plenty to offer tourists and it is actively encouraging visitors.
But unfortunately, the much-desired tourists are not flocking to the east African outpost, neighbouring Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia.
For starters, the country doesn’t exist at all according to the international community, which recognises it only as part of Somalia, the troubled nation where piracy is rife and terrorist organisation Al-Shabaab is based.
Locals walk along some of the 528 miles of beachfront in Somaliland that the country is keen to promote
Although not officially recognised as a country, Somaliland neighbours Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia
This association with Somalia is the reason western governments such as the UK and Canada call the self-proclaimed independent entity and former British protectorate a no-go zone, claim locals, but this isn’t stopping Somaliland pushing to bring in the tourist dollar.
Official websites proudly proclaim they boast 850km (528 miles) of quiet beaches just waiting to be lazed upon by westerners, while historic landmarks await their long-overdue admiration.
But the tourists are not flooding in, despite there being numerous means of accessing the nation through neighbouring Ethiopia and Djibouti.
As far as Somaliland is concerned, the country has been independent since 1991 and the only thing holding it back is the fact that isn’t being recognised globally.
Abdinasir Ibrahim is the director of Somaliland Travel & Tours Agency, is keen to add to the handful of eager travellers who defy warnings to visit.
He laments the slow increase in tourists over recent years – figures differ greatly from a few hundred to more than 1000 last year – due to the ‘lack of recognition,’ referring to the wait for the world to acknowledge Somaliland’s existence.
‘I believe that as soon we get international recognition the tourists will flock to our stunning beaches.’ he tells MailOnline.
The unofficial nation gained independence from Britain in 1960 before joining the former Italian Somaliland but the countries encountered strife under the rule of dictator Mohammad Siad Barre, whose regime killed tens of thousands of Somalilanders due to tribal connection during a brutal civil war from 1988. When the Barre regime fell in 1991, Somaliland declared their still unrecognised independence.
An unspoiled stretch of sand in Somaliland which tourism bodies are keen for westerners to explore
Tourists are welcome in the unrecognised country, but are asked to respect local customs and dress modestly
While not great in numbers, tourists do come. Mostly from the UK, USA, Australia, Sweden, Canada and Germany, says Abdinasir, who insists Somaliland has something to offer all sorts of travellers, not just those keen to get a genuinely unique stamp on their passport.
‘We have something to offer for all kind of tourists,’ he says. ‘Somaliland have an 850 km coastline with lots of pristine beaches, beautiful coral reefs, unique archaeological sites, rare birds and mammals, fabulous mountain ranges, and a year-round sunny, warm climate, so we are offering a wide variety of tour opportunities that will allow everyone to experience Somaliland in ways that are unique.’
While Foreign and Commonwealth Office warnings place the former British protectorate with Somalia in the red zone advising against all travel, most experts say the democratically government Islamic country is among the safest and most peaceful in its region.
Abdinasir says emphatically that any perception that Somaliland is dangerous is ‘wrong’.
‘That’s actually the saddest part, Somaliland has a 0 per cent foreigners/tourists crime rate for the last 10 years,’ he claims.
A woman sits among her scales awaiting her next sale of vegetables in the market in Hargeisa, a city in the northwestern Woqooyi Galbeed province
The busy market in Somaliland’s capital has a diverse assortment of goods from around Africa and the world
‘It seems that when you are doing things peacefully and helping yourself, then no one cares about you,’ the acting Somaliland ambassador to Ethiopia, Ayanle Salad Deria, told Al Jazeera.
‘Somaliland has been functioning for 24 years, and we’ve got lots of places to visit, including 850 kilometers (528 miles) of beaches.’
The range of figures for incoming tourists in 2014 is warped by some numbers including just foreign tourists while other records include those who had previously fled violence slowly returning.
Somaliland’s advocates are pushing its beaches, culture and history human artifacts such as the Laas Geel cave paintings, which are estimated to date back to between 900BC and 3000BC.
Companies including Somaliland Travel & Tours Agency (STTA) and Safari Travel, Tours and Culture are also increasingly eager to squire visitors around its attractions as the country looks to reduce its economy’s long-standing reliance on livestock exports through the port in Berbera.
‘From exploring deserts to taking unique walks through interesting attractions, such as the Laas Gaal Caves, where you will see cave paintings that are thousands of years old also relaxing on some of the finest beaches on the Horn of Africa,’ says STTA’s website.
STTC offers city tours of the capital Hargeisa with its markets and famous money lenders, along with Zeila and Las Anod among others. Special tours can also be taken to Laas Geel, along with the Ga’an Libah Mountain and the Somaliland desert.
A western tourist takes pictures of the Laas Geel caves with artwork dating back as far as 3,000BC
The caves and other historic artifacts are considered some of the most attractive lures for tourists
A guide points out a depiction of a cow and explains its meaning on the walls of the Laas Geel rock caves
A woman displays freshly designed henna tattoos on her hands on the beach in Berbera
Berbera, the port city the national economy hinges upon, is a major draw with its quiet – meaning largely deserted – beaches and chances to snorkel and scuba dive. A lack of infrastructure, however, makes the long stretches of sand not as equipped for tourists as competitors may be, a lure for some but it also means a sometimes unpleasant odour from waste can also be endured.
Somaliland is also a strict Islamic community, which may be a turn-off for some westerners enticed by the talk of exotic, deserted stretches of sand given the rules that come with that.
GETTING TO SOMALILAND
Tourists can fly to the capital Hargeisa through the following routes: Daily from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia with Ethiopian Airlines, twice weekly from Dubai via neighbouring Djibouti with Daallo and Juba, and on African Express Airways, who offer three weekly flights from Dubai to Berbera and from Nairobi in Kenya via Mogadishu.
By road enter through Ethiopia and Djibouti, although it’s cheaper to fly than drive.
A tax of US$60 is charged on entry.
Visas can be obtained through various means in Ethiopia and elsewhere. In the UK it’s possible to get a visa on the spot in the Somaliland Liaison Office in East London.
Bikinis are banned and a sundowner with alcohol in it isn’t an option as it is illegal in Somaliland.
‘When swimming, dressing must respect the religion and tradition and the women should dress more conservatively and wear something long,’ Abdinasir says.
Visitors are also warned to be careful when taking photographs, especially around military installments.
On the flipside, dining out is quite cheap with a meal at one of the best restaurants costing US$10 and middling meals cost US$5.
Abdinasir adds international calls on mobile phones cost US$0.20 per minute or less, ‘five or six times lower than in most African countries’
While the tourism companies claim the place is safe, armed guards are sometimes mandatory for tourists or offered. Many suggest this is motivated more by the fear of what a negative incident could have on the burgeoning industry than the threat of terrorism the FCO and other western governments warn of in strongly worded advisories.
‘The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to Somalia, including Somaliland except for the cities of Hargeisa and Berbera to which the FCO advise against all but essential travel,’ says the advisory for Brits. ‘Any British nationals in areas of Somalia to which the FCO advise against all travel should leave. Any British nationals in Hargeisa or Berbera who are not on essential travel should leave.’
Abdinasir and the people of Somaliland, however, are opening their arms.