Socotra: A living paradise abandoned

By Bhanu Bhatnagar

Socotra has been called the Galapagos of the Middle East, writes Bhanu Bhatnagar.
The recent lack of tourism on the island of Socotra means many locals are struggling.
The recent lack of tourism on the island of Socotra means many locals are struggling.

Sometimes a slice of paradise can be found in the most unlikely places.

Yemen is not high on the list of destinations for people wanting to unwind and get away from it all. First, there's the heat. Then there's the political upheaval. Then there's the local chapter of al-Qaeda.

But then there's Socotra. Although it is officially part of Yemen, it could be a world away.

Sitting 240km east of the Horn of Africa and 380km south of the Arabian Peninsula, it has been described as the Galapagos of the Middle East. It is an island of breathtaking beauty and rich biodiversity, where white-sand beaches give way to high granite mountains, limestone plateaus and deep valleys. Where frankincense trees grow and wind-battered cliffs drop straight into the sea. And where the local language Socrati - which predates Arabic - is still spoken among the 50,000 people who call this island home.

When the Arab Spring reached Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled for 22 years, was rolled and replaced by one of his deputies.

Today, many Western governments advise their citizens not to visit. There is a known (though small) al-Qaeda presence. And a spate of kidnappings has made foreigners nervous. In short, Yemen is not considered an attractive tourist destination.

But it should be. Considered one of the jewels of biodiversity in the Arabian Sea, Socotra is unlike anywhere else on the planet. The island was created after the African and Arabian land masses split about 20 million years ago.

In 2009, Unesco named the entire island a world heritage site. Ninety per cent of its reptiles and a third of its 900 plant species are found nowhere else on the planet. And the diversity of the island's natural heritage is also reflected in its people, who are the descendants of Africans, Arabs and Indians - a true melting pot.

People here live by the seasons. There are very few paved roads. Even the capital, Hadibo, lacks basic infrastructure.

Travelling through Socotra you get a sense that the locals are content. They have a tight-knit community of villages (some comprise only a few mud houses), everyone knows everyone else going back several generations, they look out for each other and they cherish their unique identity.

Mainland Yemen has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world. On Socotra, there are no guns.

This place feels different from the rest of Yemen and, indeed, from the rest of the Arab world.

Tourism to Socotra is suffering because of the continuing political crisis on the mainland.

One of my guides, Abduljameel, tells me he's been working to promote Socotra for many years. And things had finally started to pick up when the latest crisis began.

In 2010 for example, about 4000 tourists visited Socotra. The following year just 250 tourists came to the island. Abduljameel tells me there's a sense of fear among many travellers that Socotra may not be safe. Nothing, he says, could be further from the truth. In fact, he markets Socotra as the safest place to visit in all of the Middle East. And it certainly felt that way while I was there.

Abduljameel runs Socotra Eco-Tours from his small office in Hadibo. It functions more like a co-operative than a company. He enlists the help of fishermen, guides and drivers, from across the island, all of whom get a cut of what the tourist pays. It's a sustainable and equitable way to share the limited wealth that comes to the island.

The fallout from the political crisis on mainland Yemen has meant a loss of livelihoods and income for many Socotris who rely on tourism.

One of our guides, Sami, says he works on his family's date palm farm when tourist numbers are low. Another guide, Mehdi, moonlights as a fisherman to make ends meet.

But these guys are trained in conservation and eco-tourism, with impeccable English, and an in-depth knowledge of Socotra's natural heritage.

The Middle East can be a volatile place. Last year, Yemen's capital Sanaa saw a massive rally outside the US embassy. Kidnappings and bombings are common.

I was oblivious to all this, sleeping under the stars, no phone, no internet, just the sound of the ocean crashing against the shore. And so were my guides.

When I asked Abduljameel about the troubles on the mainland, he shrugged it off with his big smile.

"That's Sanaa," he said.

"Here on Socotra, we live like we have always done. In peace."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Flights to Socotra depart from Sanaa (Yemen) and Sharjah (UAE).

Further information: See socotra.info.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf02 at 23 Oct 2014 22:00:44 Processing Time: 437ms