Tourism in Somalia?

Anarchic and war-racked Somalia is not a likely tourist destination. A 2004 article in The Economist described Somalia’s Minister of Tourism as having “perhaps the world’s hardest job, but very little to do.” The country “had not had a single acknowledged tourist in 14 years,” despite the fact that, that “brave tourists can find unusual bargains in Mogadishu,” including $10 hand grenades and Howitzers selling for a mere $20,000. The Tourism Minister’s response to concerns about violence were not wholly reassuring: “I’m sure tourists would leave Somalia alive and I’m hopeful they wouldn’t be kidnapped… At least, we would try to make sure they were not kidnapped, although it can happen.”

Somalia’s tourism industry has not exactly blossomed in the six years since thatarticle appeared. But several internet travel sites maintain pages on Somalia, giving information on hotels, attractions, and weather. Those who plan a trip to the Horn of Africa will find little encouragement at these sites. “Tripadvisor” lists a visit to the Bakara Market as one of the two “top-rated things to do” in Mogadishu; its single customer review describes the market as “a dangerous, hostile and filthy, dirty place … a gun and weapon filled outdoor hell hole … strewn with animal parts and guts thrown in piles everywhere and anywhere… Other more gross scenes were also witnessed … corpses of human bodies, mostly dead from disease or starvation were being butchered and sold as animal feed for the dogs and hyenas kept as either pets, watch-dogs or as a food source.” Going to the central market to openly buy human flesh to feed pet hyenas? The grotesque exaggerations stun the mind, yet this passes as Tripadvisor’s single comment on the Mogadishu region. Other sites give a rather more sanitized view. “Bakara’s street food are mouth watering and delicious and made with the most simple and the basic condiments found in Somalia,” states the Somalia Tourism page of “MapsofWorld.” Whether mouth-watering foods will be enough to attract foreign visitors to the Bakara Market is another question.

Tourism in Mogadishu may be a joke, but the same is not true everywhere in the country. Within its officially recognized boundaries, Somalia includes credible attractions as well as a professionally run tourist infrastructure. Organized tours allow visitors to snorkel and scuba-dive in the Gulf of Aden, see some of Africa’s best-preserved cave paintings at Lass Geel, and explore a medieval walled city supposedly noted for its 90 mosques. The more venturesome can sign up to “experience nomad life” while interacting closely with Somali herders. Such adventures require advance work. Apart from ethnic Somalis, everyone must obtain a visa to enter these regions – but Somali visas, obtainable at Somalia’s embassies abroad, are not accepted. The tourist hot-spots mentioned above are located in the northwest, and to travel there one must possess a Somaliland visa, obtainable only from the Somaliland missions in London and Addis Ababa. Within Somalia, only the breakaway Republic of Somaliland is stable and peaceful enough to foster a tourist trade.

Maps, governments, and international agencies tell us that Somaliland does not exist; according to a recent article from a U.N.-associated news agency, Somaliland is merely a “semi-autonomous region” of Somalia. In actuality Somaliland is fully independent. The writ of Somalia’s government means nothing within its confines. All that Somaliland lacks is official recognition.

Somaliland itself is not without political problems, as we shall see in tomorrow’s post. Prospective tourists might want to wait until after the June, 2010 elections before booking flights to Hargeisa. But however troubled Somaliland may be, it is a model of good government compared with the rest of the country that it supposedly belongs to.

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