Even before October’s horrific attack in Mogadishu, Somalia was a no-go zone for many. Can the country move beyond deadly conflict and embrace its tourism potential, Amanda Sperber writes.
Andrew Drury only intended to come to Somalia once. A self-described “adventure tourist,” who has been to more than 100 countries, a trip was a tick off a mental list of conflict-ridden destinations he intended to visit.
“There was a bit of male bravado,” he admitted, adding that, though he’d already travelled to Iraq and Afghanistan, he appreciated the “shock value” of telling people he’d been to the country about which a non-fiction book is titled The World’s Most Dangerous Place.
In 2012, the Somali federal government had just been re-established, and didn’t venture far from its besieged compound. Clans wars still waged over fiefdom blocks. Al Shabaab, the Islamist militant group, was an open, defiant presence. There wasn’t a tourist stamp for Drury’s passport.
Drury didn’t think much of the place.
By 2015, African Union troops fighting with Somali militias stabilised Mogadishu, the capital, enough so that the government was more comfortably seated. Al Shabaab remained, but was more of an an underground force. Bombings and shootings were as regular as a few times a week, but the violence was hit-and-run attacks, not drawn-out urban warfare
Feeling he hadn’t got a sense of the country in 2012, Drury returned to Mogadishu. “I decided to go back to Somalia because I didn’t think I’d seen it. Something drew me back,” he said. Drury isn’t the first foreigner to refer to the country’s mystical pull on the soul.
On his second visit, he was hooked, “I had an emotional feeling I had never had before,” he said. “I had this real love for the country and the people.”
He returned in 2015, and is planning another trip this year.
People like Bashir Yusuf Osman, the owner of the Peace Hotels, are betting on this unique Somali tug to turn war-ravaged Somalia into a tourist destination. Well, that, and the white sand beaches that form a shore with the turquoise-purple Indian Ocean along Africa’s longest coastline with the buzzing open-air markets, Gothic Ottoman architecture including the Guardafui lighthouse (a 19-metre-tall, abandoned tower built by the Italians during the early 1920s) and lively cafe culture.
About eight years ago, Osman bought 28 hectares of ocean-front property in Mogadishu with plans of building a resort. It was extremely dangerous for him to even go and look at the land when he bought it, but in July he travelled to Nairobi to meet with the architect and discuss the Lamu-style bungalows that will dot the beach. Construction is underway and he aims to open in July 2018.
Osman’s moves reflect an oft-noted keenly Somali ability to keep calm and carry on in a way that puts the British to shame (though may also border on insanity). Mogadishu residents joke that after al Shabaab attacks a restaurant, it’ll re-open for business and customers will be calmly drinking tea amidst the rubble a few hours later.
“Everyone said it was too early,” Osman said, recalling the purchase. “But for me, I was thinking it’s the right time to start, because it’s going to get expensive.”
Over the last five years, Mogadishu has become a veritable boom town as the government expands its reach and the diaspora (more than two-million strong) return to visit, or stay. “Mogadishu is like Manhattan,” a British-Somali property developer said in an interview to the Guardian back in 2013. The business rush is beginning to extend to legitimate tourist considerations even as the majority of buildings are pock-marked with bullet holes and the average city block remains at least fifty percent rubble.
The national, nomadic tendency to keep moving ahead is now made policy by Abdirahman Omar Osman, Somalia’s Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism who, in June, travelled to Madrid to unveil a master plan to revive Somalia’s tourism industry, and to advocate for Somalia’s inclusion in the UN World Tourism Organisation, membership of which it finally attained last month.
Like most Somali politicians, Osman is the first to acknowledge that security is still the country’s first concern. More than 100 violent incidents were attributed to al Shabaab between November 2016 and May 2017. In June, al Shabaab rammed an explosive-laden car into the only hotel with a disco, and then stormed a popular new restaurant, holding 20 hostage and killing dozens.
In October, terrorists carried out one of the deadliest attacks ever on Somali soil, when two trucks exploded at a busy intersection near the Safari Hotel in Mogadishu. The blasts killed at least 300 people, with the death toll expected to rise.
Speaking before that attack, Osman said, “If you’re talking about tourism and thinking [only] about security, you’ll never take steps.”
For now, according to Osman, Somalia’s main visitors are “indirect” tourists: people coming for work or diaspora Somalis returning to see family. His hope is that spots like the cathedral and the beach, and others like the fish market, will get more institutionalised, and bets that these will be the early adopters when spots like Osman’s beach resort open.
Jenny Ziemba, a British Army officer formerly based in Somalia who is also a scuba diving instructor, would be a return visitor. “Somalia is an ideal location for water-based activities,” she said. “The warm Indian Ocean waters host an array of tropical fish and aquatic life [that make for] a snorkelling paradise, including many puffer fish, blue spotted rays, Moray eels and turtles.”
She added: “The long shallow coastline makes it a perfect spot to snorkel as you don’t have to go far to see a large mix of life but for those that wish to venture out further, the shallow water makes it safe to do so.”
Somaliland, the self-declared nation to the northwest in Somalia, is a significantly more stabilised area, and has a trickle of tourists coming to see the ancient yet still pristine Laas Geel cave paintings, take in the sights, sounds and smells of Hargeisa, the capital, and Berbera, the port city. Lonely Planet mentions some of the sites in their Africa guidebook, but notes that the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) does not advise travel to Somalia, proper. Just to Somaliland.
“As Lonely Planet has a policy of not sending writers to areas on the FCO ‘avoid all travel’ list, it is unlikely that we will be increasing our coverage of the south and central part of Somalia in the near future,” said a representative from the company by email.
In the meantime, Yasir Baffo of the Somali Tourism Agency is working on getting Somalis eager youth trained and ready to receive guests. In 2014, he built a hospitality training centre with courses in customer care, frontoffice and waitering for about 150 students.
The centre, part of the Dayah hotel in Mogadishu, was bombed this past January. Twenty-eight people were killed and the plates, cups and all the practice equipment destroyed.
A new centre, the Somali Institute of Tourism and Hospitality, is set to open in the autumn. Baffo smiles and says “As long as we are alive, we can rebuild.