Somaliland: the next big adventure travel destination?

Can a country that doesn’t officially exist develop a tourism industry? Some entrepreneurs in Somaliland think so.

Abdi Abdi, owner of the Oriental Hotel in Hargeisa, already runs a tour company. Other hotel owners are following suit and experimenting with special tours. Abdi Abdi offers home stays with nomad families. Hassan Ahmed Hussein, owner of the Hadhwanaag Hotel and Restaurant, is considering offering camel tours and boating trips. Both want to put Somaliland on the map for adventure travel.

Somaliland certainly has some strong points. The prehistoric painted caves of Laas Geel are the star attraction. They’re as beautiful as the more famous caves of Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain, with the added bonus that they’re actually open to the public. I’ve traveled to thirty countries, and worked as an archaeologist in four, and Laas Geel is perhaps the most impressive archaeological site I’ve ever seen. It certainly ranks in the top five, along with the Pyramids of Giza, Karnak, Machu Picchu, and Avebury.

Not only are the paintings in a wonderful state of preservation, but the desolate landscape, with only one or two nomad’s shelters within view, adds to the atmosphere. In my opinion Laas Geel should not be developed, simply guarded and left in its natural state. The Somaliland government has already taken steps to protect the site and should leave well enough alone. Too many archaeological treasures have lost their atmosphere through “improvements” such as visitor’s centers and parking lots.

As shown on the site Somali Heritage, there are plenty of other ancient remains that could become tourist attractions once they’ve been properly studied. There are medieval forts and settlements, colonial remains from Ottoman and British times, and more painted caves like those at Laas Geel.Beyond history, there’s the capital Hargeisa and its camel market, as well as incredible scuba diving in Berbera. At the moment, though, lack of international recognition and the common confusion between Somaliland and Somalia will keep many potential visitors from ever considering Somaliland. Plus this is still a volatile region. Foreigners are advised to have a bodyguard when venturing outside the capital, and a few days ago a border skirmish with Ethiopia left 13 dead. Then there’s the on-again, off-again border dispute with neighboring Puntland.

These problems will keep most people away, but will attract others. Somaliland has to be careful not to attract the wrong kind of tourist, thrill seekers enchanted by the guns and the burnt-out tanks and the legal drugs. I’ve met way too many of these people on the road, and they tend to leave a bad reputation in their wake. The best part of traveling in Somaliland is the Somalis themselves. They’re unaccustomed to tourists and thus their warmth and hospitality have been untarnished by bad interactions with obnoxious foreigners. This could so easily change.

Take the example of Egypt, which has been a tourist destination since the days of Heroditus. Visitors to any of the great sites (and they’re so awesome they truly must be seen) will be constantly harassed, hurried, propositioned, screamed at for tips, and hustled. This leaves many visitors with the impression that Egyptians are all a bunch of hucksters who are only interested in quick cash.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Once a visitor breaks through the vile crust of touts, he’ll find the Egyptians warm, welcoming, funny, and great company. The images of the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings are etched forever in my mind, but my fondest memories of Egypt are sitting on the banks of the Nile in the small town of Minya chatting with some students, and sipping coffee in backstreet cafes in Cairo. A foreign visitor to Egypt should take time to meet the Egyptians. This helps the reputation of both countries.

At the moment Somali people are wide open. It’s up to every foreign visitor and the Somalis themselves to keep the communication more about exchanging goodwill and knowledge than exchanging money for thrills.

In the short term Somaliland will remain an adventurous side trip from Ethiopia, but as the infrastructure improves and more people learn about its attractions, the nation will get more visitors. As a travel writer I have to wonder about my own role in all of this. My series on Somaliland has been one of the first, if not the first, on a major travel website. I’m helping to set the ball rolling. When I visit Somaliland again in a few years time, or perhaps even next year since I’m anxious to get back to Harar, will I see a change? And will it be for the better or for the worse?

Don’t miss the rest of my series on travel in Somaliland.