BERBERA, Somaliland — Friday is the day people head to the beach near the ancient maritime town of Berbera, across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. On any other day of the week, the shore is all but deserted.
On a recent Saturday afternoon Abdirahman Hashi, 26, cut a lone figure on the sand watching small waves lapping against Baathela Beach. He arrived for a swim, he said. Afterward, he began the walk back to town with the coast line all to himself.
Much like the unsignposted beach, there are few international indicators to identify Somaliland’s existence. Most people do not distinguish it from Somalia, and currently, the global community doesn’t either. Although a self-declared independent nation since 1991, Somaliland doesn’t technically exist. Somalilanders, not surprisingly, take umbrage, pointing out the contrary, highlighting how their country has built a functioning, democratic society from the scraps of civil war.
Today, creating a tourist industry based on the country’s beaches, history and cultural sites offers one means to change global perspectives and boost the livestock-export-dependent economy. However, no one thinks it will be easy.
“It seems that when you are doing things peacefully and helping yourself, then no one cares about you,” Ayanle Salad Deria, the acting Somaliland ambassador to Ethiopia, said of the international community’s approach to his country’s situation. “Somaliland has been functioning for 24 years, and we’ve got lots of places to visit, including 850 kilometers [528 miles] of beaches.”
He left his office briefly, returning with a large black ring binder folder full of visa applications he started to flip through. “American … American … European — these are for this month. There’s about 50,” he boasted.
‘It seems that when you are doing things peacefully and helping yourself, then no one cares about you. Somaliland has been functioning for 24 years, and we’ve got lots of places to visit, including 850 kilometers of beaches.’
Ayanle Salad Deria
Acting Somaliland ambassador to Ethiopia
Though hardly a deluge of visitors, for Somaliland such tourist numbers are a step in the right direction. Estimates for tourists in 2014 are hard to verify and vary from 300 to 1,300. Many tourists not captured by the official figures are from the Somaliland diaspora, some visiting their country for the first time since fleeing its troubled past.
Somaliland was a British protectorate until in 1960, when it elected to unite with the Italian colony of Somalia to the south to form the independent Republic of Somalia. But disagreements and a perceived policy of neglect by the south led to the union’s failure and decades of struggle, culminating in full civil war during the 1980s. When dictator Siad Barre was forced out of power in 1991, Somaliland broke away from Somalia and reclaimed its sovereignty.
In addition to virgin beaches, tourists to Somaliland can enjoy some of the world’s oldest rock art in the caves of Laas Geel; gain exposure to nomadic and pastoralist traditions; see the camel market in the capital, Hargeisa; and visit Zeila’s Masjid al-Qiblatayn ruins, one of the few ancient mosques featuring two mihrabs, one indicating Mecca to the north and the other pointing to Jerusalem slightly more to the west.
“We concluded that over the short term, Somaliland’s historical sites are its strongest assets,” said Georgina Jamieson of the tourism consultancy service Dunira Strategy, which in 2014 finished a feasibility study of heritage tourism as a driver of sustainable economic growth in Somaliland. “There’s very little at the beaches in terms of infrastructure. There needs to be more, 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.”
This undiscovered status of Somaliland’s coastline, however, isn’t necessarily an advantage. Berbera offers rickety and crumbling buildings near much of its waterline, with teeming refuse and unsavory smells. In addition to lack of adequate infrastructure dissuading more mainstream tourists, Somaliland’s strict Islamic culture means women swim fully clothed and no cold beers are served at sundown. Furthermore, already there are increasing reports of thefts on the beach and foreigners being aggressively hassled for money. More of a challenge, however, comes down to risk analysis.
“I don’t see tourist numbers increasing while Western governments have travel advisories in place,” said Jim Louth of the adventure travel company Undiscovered Destinations, which sends groups of tourists to Somaliland twice a year. “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.”
Those travel advisories typically stem from Somaliland’s misconstrued identity. “It’s a forgotten land, or people think it’s the same as Somalia,” said Xavier Vallès, an NGO health consultant in Somaliland who grew up next to the beach in Barcelona and noted the Mediterranean feel of Baathela Beach. And the country’s identity crisis irrevocably stems from its continuing lack of statehood.
“The only way we can sell the country’s assets is to have international recognition,” said Jama Musse, the director of the Hargeisa Cultural Center. “Tourism will not grow without that recognition. It’s a simple fact. The world does not know about us.” As a result, he explained, 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 recognized, there’s the danger of anyone offering advice without accountability.
One potential important tourist boost for Somaliland is less dependent on changing Western travel advisories.
“Ethiopia is our neighbor and, with its large population, offers a big market,” said Mohammed Abdirizak, who runs the 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 could benefit from becoming an onward destination for the increasing numbers of foreign tourists lured to Ethiopia, said Mark Rowlatt, a 56-year-old habitual traveler planning his Somaliland itinerary from Hargeisa’s Oriental Hotel. On the walls of the Oriental, the city’s oldest hotel was a photo of the building bullet-ridden and half demolished during the civil war, accompanied by new posters depicting Somaliland’s beaches and historic sites under a hopeful banner reading, “Wonderful Somaliland — the newest tourist destination in Africa.”
‘The only way we can sell the country’s assets is to have international recognition. Tourism will not grow without that recognition. It’s a simple fact. The world does not know about us.’
Director, Hargeisa Cultural Center
Unlike Somaliland, Ethiopia is deemed safe for travel by most Western governments, though personal travel experiences offer alternative perspectives.
“I wanted to come back to Somaliland because I liked the way the people let you exist and go about your business,” said Ellen Richmond, who visited the country from the U.S. two years ago and is now a volunteer teacher at a Hargeisa university. “I’d traveled in Ethiopia before, where, as a woman, it was much harder.”
Some of those backing Somaliland tourism say the government isn’t doing enough, although it could be excused as being distracted by more pressing matters. The economy remains perilously fragile, with nonstatehood depriving it of large-scale international support and access to global financial systems and institutions. In addition, poverty is widespread and swaths of young men lounging on streets testify to chronically high unemployment.
“These young men represent an army in waiting for ambitious politicians to use for personal gain and are a ready-made pool of rudderless youth from which militant extremists with an agenda can recruit,” said Rakiya Omaar, a Somali lawyer and the chairwoman of the Horizon Institute, a Somaliland consultancy helping communities transition from underdevelopment to resilience and stability.
For now, Somaliland’s peace holds, and those tourists choosing to take their governments’ travel advisories with a pinch of salt can visit in relative safety. Depending on where one travels in the country, an armed escort is often mandated. But most say that’s more to do with the government fearing how even one tourist-related incident would undermine efforts toward international recognition.
“Everyone here has a cause — ‘This is Somaliland,’” said Yonis Nur, a Somalilander who worked for 27 years with the BBC World Service. “They suffered, things were in ashes, and that is why they believe in the cause and want it. Stability and security is an asset.”