high on a plateau between the Haghier mountain range and the Arabian Sea, five
Socotrans gathered in a stone hut devoid of electricity, running water and all
but the most essential supplies. After a fire-cooked dinner of goat, rice and
tea, a group of Dixam plateau men settled in for a standard night of song,
poetry and discussion about their island’s future.
an island of roughly 50,000 people located 380km off the coast of Yemen, the country
to which it only technically belongs. Far removed from the political and security
instability on the mainland, Socotra’s stunning microclimates,
exceptional biodiversity and Candyland-like features make it an inimitable paradise.
A Unesco World Heritage Site, the Socotra archipelago is home to hundreds of endemic or endangered
plant and animal species. The iconic “Dragon’s Blood” tree (Dracaena cinnabari), for instance,
defies expectations, with moisture-capturing canopies that reach toward the sky
and sap that runs red, giving the plant its name. Socotran culture is equally
unique, having been preserved by centuries of near total isolation.
typical of the island’s residents, none of the men in Dixam know their age, let
alone their birthdate. A few are fluent in Arabic, but most prefer to speak
Socotri, a sharp yet pleasant native language spoken only on the island. Since
1999 though, when a commercial airport was built on the outskirts of the
capital Hadibu, outsiders have started to discover Socotra, a trend that is
helping to ease poverty and diversify the economy, but is also putting the
traditional way of life at risk.
the environment and nature because when visitors come they are comfortable,”
said one man in the hut, unconsciously verbalising Socotra’s shift from a
self-sufficient oasis to one increasingly reliant on external support.
last decade, tourism has been a boon to the economy. The pristine environment
and untouched feel makes Socotra an alluring, yet under-travelled destination. Visitors
can wander over cragged peaks, through Dragon's Blood forests, deep into
stalagmite caves and across white sand dunes before plunging into the crisp,
blue ocean. They can hike the 1,520m-high Skand peak, swim alongside dolphins, rock
climb, lounge on world-class beaches or stop and try the locals’ fermented goat’s
milk; no doubt an acquired taste.
From the western-most
city of Qalansiyah to the Dihamri Protected Area on the island’s northeastern
point, goats are a notably ubiquitous part of the landscape. Brought to Socotra
centuries ago by sailors, they reproduced rapidly and are now a staple of island
life, providing both food and income for their owners. Unfortunately, they also
eat virtually everything in their path, including the seedlings of rare plants.
a passionate traveller and amateur botanist, learned about Socotra after seeing a
picture of the Dragon’s Blood tree on the side of a garbage can at the Royal
Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Intrigued, he typed the words into Google and was
blown away by the strange images before him. A quick search for Socotra brings up
not only the Dragon’s Blood, but also the gnome of the plant world: the endemic
Desert Rose (Adenium obesum sokotranum).
With its stout, branchless trunk topped with tufts of green leaves, the Desert
Rose is the island’s most well-known type of Bottle tree, a variety that survives
in island’s drier regions by storing water in their trunks.
“This is an
inspection tour to get more info about Socotra,” he explained less than a year
later, sitting on a beach during a break from snorkelling in Dihamri. Jans leads botanical tours around the world, and
plans to return to Socotra again in 2015 with, as he puts it, “20 plant freaks”.
influx of tourists, Socotra can hardly be described as crowded. Even prior to
the Arab Spring uprisings that swept Yemen in 2011, Socotra hosted a mere 4,000
tourists per year, most of whom would visit between September and April to
avoid the island’s summer windy season. Due to the unrest, visitor numbers took
a precipitous drop into the hundreds, but this past season the figure climbed
back up to 1,400, a sign that the industry is beginning to recover.
Yet as Mohammed
Amer, the former head of Socotra’s environmental office, pointed out, any increase in visitors poses a
challenge. “The problem we always have, with the environment, is that we clash
with the interests of the people.”
major cities, one place this equilibrium could be jeopardised is at the massive
sand dunes of Arher on the eastern coast. Ten storeys high, these wind-swept
piles rise from the sea and abut steep, rocky cliffs. Tourists camp along the fresh-water
streams that flow between the dunes, and swim off the nearby Ras Irsal
peninsula. Without proper management, the area is ripe for harmful development that
could disrupt the delicate ecosystem.
tourists, foreign companies have also become interested in Socotra. They gather frankincense, endemic flora known for its powerful
medicinal qualities, and a variety of other natural wonders at unsustainable rates. Mahdi
Naseeb, a local tour
guide complained that
unscrupulous harvesters “take Dragon Blood all the time, even if it is not the
drastic change, however, may be still to come. Though the timeline remains
unclear, plans for a new, vastly expanded port funded by Kuwait has stirred
debate, as it could
eventually bring thousands more people to Socotra each year.
Dixam plateau, the men huddled around the fire were of two minds. Protecting
the island for future generations while simultaneously accommodating modernisation and combating poverty will clearly
be a struggle. Those against the port outnumbered those in favour, but only by
a narrow three-to-two margin – an ominous sign.
neither Socotra’s ecosystem nor its culture could be restored. Although the
appearance of foreign bathers has at times chaffed the island’s generally
conservative population, other issues are likely to prove more detrimental. Preserving
the Socotri language, for example, will be one barometer of the ability to strike
a balance between old and new.
father, Naseeb speaks mostly Arabic with his friends. “It's difficult to find
young people [who] greet in Socotri in the market in the city. I'm scared it
will be lost.”
the worries about the island’s fate remain largely conjecture. For now, Socotra’s
aura of envious simplicity and consummate natural beauty endure, begging to be
admired and protected by locals and outsiders alike.
Socotra takes planning and bit of cooperation from Mother Nature. Unless you
are citizen of Egypt, Syria, Jordan or an Arab Gulf country, you must have a
visa to enter Yemen. They can be obtained relatively easily at Yemeni embassies
or consulates around the world, as well as through tour companies based in
Yemen, such as Eternal Yemen. They take at least two weeks to process.
regular flights to the island’s only airport, and disembarking on the Yemeni
mainland is not necessary, though worth the detour. Yemenia
weekly flights from the capital Sana’a, and Felix Airways
flies the route three days a week. Felix also offers a weekly flight from
Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Delays due to inclement
weather are common.
It is best
to make arrangements for Socotra through a tour company or upon arrival. The United
Nations Development Programme lists a number of tour
operators – Ismael Mohammed comes particularly highly regarded – and other
useful travel tips on their website.
All the hotels
on Socotra are located in Hadibu. Summerland Hotel offers debatably four-star accommodation, including a restaurant and
tour services, while the others are more basic. Outside the city, tents and
eco-campsites are the law of the land. Even in Hadibu, the Adeeb eco-camp is
often the preferred lodging option. Most gear (snorkels, tents, etc) can be
rented through tour operators or on site.
Public transportation is virtually non-existent, so most travellers
either trek on foot or hire a four-wheel-drive vehicle and driver. Transport,
along with the shuttling of luggage, full-service camping (complete with meals)
and a guide, can be included in most tour packages or arranged separately.