Unlikely tourism in unstable regions

Camels in Djibouti

Recent development in the Republic of Djibouti highlight surprising tourism trends, in a region that many would classify as the most dangerous in the world. The north of the country faces Yemen, a bare 150km across the Red Sea at the Bab al-Mandab straight. As recently as 2008, there was active fighting between Djibouti and its northern neighbour, Eritrea where, in 2012, a group of tourists was kidnapped. And to the south lies Somalia.

In these unlikely circumstances, the tourism authorities and tourism professionals remain upbeat. Djibouti’s largest inbound tour operator – a small operation, with a dozen vehicles – operates to capacity during the winter months, sometimes unable to meet the demand. The desert and coastal ‘campements’ – rough huts without electricity or running water – report an increasing flow of foreign tourists, of European, Asian and other origins. They can be seen at the major tourist sites, in small groups with their local guides, getting out of 4x4s and dressed for the desert. Others are on trekking expeditions, across the salt flats of Lake Assal or over the rugged landscapes of the Great Rift Valley, which starts its land journey west from Djbouti.

“What is the explanation?” I ask Houmed Ali, head of the Safar agency. His answer is that the small but important niche market of desert travellers, those who used to cross the Sahara in their 4x4s, are on the look-out for more secure but still adventurous destinations, now that Libya, Mali, Chad and most of the Sahara are out of bounds. At the moment, he is receiving requests for information from Italy on a weekly basis, mostly from individual travellers and independent groups.

So is Djibouti really secure? That seems to be the feeling among travellers. Max, a trekking specialist based in the GCC, has so far accompanied four groups of Dubai residents on one-week walking tours, going close to both the Eritrean and Somali borders. “Djibouti is the training ground for French and US military based in the Red Sea”, he says, “so this is one of the safest places in the world”. It highlights the sophistication of such niche travellers: well-informed and smart users of social media; more influenced by their globe-trotting friends and by specialist guides than by what they see and hear on television.

Another niche market is that of divers. A good number are abandoning the Egyptian Red Sea resorts, not so much because of security issues, but because of over-commercialisation and lack of environmental respect. Djibouti plans to fill that gap, and the number of diving facilities is growing, with an equally expanding worldwide clientele.

Another factor is the growth of transnational tourism within the region. Ethiopian tour operators are keen to open up the Djibouti market for their clients, with an eye to the launch of passenger rail services from Addis Ababa in around 2020. For both Ethiopian and foreign residents, Djibouti is their best access to the sea. They are confident and sophisticated, primarily using social media to build their clientele.

They are also dismissive of security concerns. One Ethiopian operator specialises in ‘four-country tours’ out of Addis, through Somaliland (northern Somalia), Djibouti and Eritrea. For him, the 2012 kidnapping is an anomaly. “Bad things can happen anywhere”, he says. “I am a professional and I know what I’m doing. I offer adventure, but don’t take risks. My clients understand that.”

12 February 2018


David Ward-Perkins has experience both of large-scale regeneration projects and of the development of smaller destinations. He has a solid business background, in particular in marketing and management, having delivered projects throughout Europe, North America and the Middle East. Read David’s bio.