When Jama Muse first heard about the prehistoric cave paintings at Laas Geel some 20 or 30 years ago, he didn’t think anything of it. Old rock art is cool, of course, but nothing to get out of bed for. Then a group of French archaeologists trucked in, looking for … old rock art. Suddenly those paintings started to seem like a bigger deal. Muse is now a tour guide for the heritage site. “There are a lot of people visiting here from different countries,” he says.
Tell your honey to pack a bag with comfy shoes and some SPF 50. Your next big vacation is on! And it’s in … Somaliland?
Either you don’t know where that is or you know very well where that is and think we’re nuts. The small democratic nation is located on the rough-and-tumble Horn of Africa, having essentially seceded from war-torn Somalia in 1991. Lately it’s made some headlines for welcoming Syrian refugees. But Somaliland is becoming known for something other than disputed borders and severe drought: tourism.
In the past five years, the self-declared nation has seen a marked increase in tourists. Though the exact number is difficult to verify, Ibrahim Mohamed Shide, director of Somaliland’s Office of Tourism, estimates that at least 700 tourists visited this year, more than double the number of tourists they received in 2010. Granted, those are teensy numbers, but the increase is promising for other small heritage tourism sites, particularly since Laas Geel is drawing cave-painting enthusiasts from as far as Europe and the United States.
Visitor numbers are increasing every year, says Benjamin Carey of Dunira Strategy, an independent consultancy group that carried out a study of Somaliland’s tourism industry last year. He says people are realizing “what an amazing destination Somaliland is.” The study concluded that cultural heritage tourism has the potential to become a key driver of Somaliland’s economy, which is now almost entirely dependent on livestock exports. In addition to those 5,000-year-old cave paintings, the little nation also boasts beautiful, undeveloped beaches and the ruins of Masjid al-Qiblatayn, one of few ancient mosques in the world with two mihrabs, directing worshippers toward both Mecca and Jerusalem.
With droughts becoming more frequent and more severe in the region, the need for Somaliland to diversify its GDP is likewise intensifying. Even when livestock trade is good, Somaliland’s economy is the fourth poorest in the world, according to World Bank estimates. A developed tourism industry, then, could be a silver bullet. One problem: To most travelers, Somaliland and Somalia are the same damn thing. Official foreign travel advisories generally fail to differentiate between autonomous Somaliland, which Carey says is “a democratic, safe and fully functioning economy,” and the rest of Somalia, which he says remains “unstable in every sense.”
It’s an interesting time for an unusual tourism destination to emerge. Paris, after all, may no longer be the ne plus ultra dream trip for someone in small-town America. And safaris — the hunting kind, at least — were tainted by the scandal last winter when a Midwestern dentist killed Cecil the Lion. Add to that our constant hunger as humans for what is new and next — and for escapes from lives in which “work” and “personal” have blurred to the point of indistinguishable, and “offline” can seem like a dream in and of itself.
Hold off just a second before hitting Kayak.com, though. No international government yet recognizes Somaliland. Many cite concerns that the creation of a new state in the region — although Somaliland has functioned as one for 24 years — would encourage other secessionist movements in Somalia and Balkanize the country along clan lines. For travelers, even an incident as minor as losing a passport could be major, since there are no foreign embassies. Somaliland requires all tourists traveling outside the would-be capital, Hargeisa, to have what you might call a travel guide … if you define travel guide as an armed escort.
On the other hand, and a bit ironically, the very ties to Somalia it’s trying to sever may be a tourist draw. “I’m on a mission to see every country in the world, and this was my best bet for traveling technically to Somalia,” says April Peregrino, an American pharmacist touring Somaliland, who says the lack of development can be appealing to “intrepid travelers” like her. And according to a report by George Washington University and the Adventure Travel Trade Association, growth in the adventure travel market increased at a 65 percent yearly rate between 2009 and 2013. The industry is faring well compared to more luxury travel: In 2009 the sector’s global market value was $142 billion, compared to $27 billion for luxury cruise lines, according to the same study.
To many Somalilanders, the presence of tourists is both a risk and a boon: Any security blemish on its tourist track record could send Somaliland’s bid for recognition into the dust, while an increase in tourists could help it achieve that recognition. “By giving Somaliland as much exposure abroad as possible, we can distinguish ourselves from Somalia,” says Abdirizaq Abdullahi, managing director of Somaliland Travel, one of the most prominent travel agencies in the region. “If there are a lot of tourists coming, it will show the country is safe; it will put Somaliland on the map.”