Tourists are heading to Somalia to see the ruins of a two-decade civil war

For a trip to the Puntland region in northeastern Somalia, Christian Matzenauer didn’t know what to expect. After traveling from Dusseldorf, Germany to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia he flew to the Somali city of Bosaso in January, drove along the coast to the towns of Alula and Bareeda, before finally arriving at Tohen.

There, at the apex where the Horn of Africa meets the Indian Ocean, Matzenauer walked to see the Guardafui lighthouse: a 19-meter tall, abandoned tower built by the Italians during the early 1920s. Guardafui’s lighthouse is also unique in that it features a stone ax blade, a symbol that represented authority in Fascist Italy. Built during Benito Mussolini’s rule, it is one of the last known standing fascist monuments in the world.

Somalia is not your everyday vacation spot. It is one of the world’s most dangerous countries (pdf, pg. 9), plagued by political infighting, violence, and terrorism. The United Nations World Tourism Organization has never recorded the number of people who visit the country since it started collecting data on tourism in 1995. Governments across the world also advise their citizens to avoid traveling to the country, for fear of kidnapping or attack. Somalia’s reputation as a tourist destination with pristine beaches completely disintegrated following the start of the civil war in 1991.

Security is still a major challenge, with the terrorist group al-Shabaab attacking almost all major hotels and restaurants in Mogadishu. Between 2007 and 2014, the al-Qaeda-linked group has carried out more than 1,700 attacks in and out of Somalia, killing more than 4,000 and wounding the same number, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism.

But that isn’t stopping tourists like Matzenauer from flying there every year. The tourists come as the nation recovers from decades of civil war. Since 2011, a new central government has led the country, and a semblance of normal life is evident in the opening of new businesses, hospitals and schools. The hospitality industry is also picking up with the opening or renovation of hotels, restaurants, and pizza parlors.

“It was the most fascinating experience I had,” Matzenauer said. The trip to Guardafui was his second to the country after visiting the capital Mogadishu in 2013.

The process of traveling to Somalia is easier said than done. Matzenauer went with Untamed Borders, a British adventure travel company that takes tourists to off-the-beaten-track destinations. These include Afghanistan, Pakistan, northeast India and Somalia. During the trip, the clients are escorted by high-level personal security, a translator, and a fixer to show them around.

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