Stepping back in time in Socotra

As visitors flock to see the Yemen island’s Candyland-like features, the increase in tourism is both helping to ease poverty and straining traditional ways of life.

Nestled 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.

Socotra is 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.

As is 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.

“We protect 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.

Over the 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.

Harry Jans, 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”.

Despite an 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.”

Outside 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.

Aside from 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 season”.

The most 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.

On the 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.

Once lost, 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.

Unlike his 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.”

Fortunately, 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.

Getting to 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.

There are regular flights to the island’s only airport, and disembarking on the Yemeni mainland is not necessary, though worth the detour. Yemenia Airways offers 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 operatorsIsmael 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.