The Somalia Investor Team tracked down the founder of Somali Tourism Association (SOMTA), Mr Yassir Mohamed Baffo, and asked him a few questions about the status of tourism in Somalia. What was the situation of tourism in the country before the civil war?
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Somalia had a vibrant tourism sector. Domestic tourism and international tourism were both vibrant and the sector was fully functional. What does a functional tourism sector mean in this case? It means availability of the attractions that draw people to a place.
It means the willingness of people to come from different parts of the world for leisure in order to experience new places. It means that there are the supporting facilities like hotels, which offer proper services. It means access to the intended places of tour is not inhibited by transport limitations be it through the ocean, air or land. All these were present during those years, but more so, we had security. Tourism can’t exist without security.
What a were some of the main tourist attractions back then? Somalia had national parks, rivers, heritage sites, mountains, caves and of course, we had and we still have one of the largest coastline in the continent. Is that it? No, there is more. Somalia is one of the nations in Africa with a rich history and an even more captivating culture. Did you know that this country is considered one of the economic centres of the early years? The fascinating culture of the different people in Somalia is another thing to watch out for. What happened to the industry after 1991?
Strife and insecurity are not good for tourism anywhere. This sector is among the sectors that have been hardest hit by the two decades of conflict. What has been the effect of insecurity on the attractions? Of course some have been affected. For instance, the beach is still not trusted by tourists and due to neglect, our parks may not be in the best of shape.
What’s spurring changes in the tourism industry? From 2000, the situation in Somalia has been getting better. That means that the confidence that people had in the country started coming back. By 2009 onwards, the Somali people living abroad started coming back home for their holidays. Most of these people are the ones who have invested in the tourism industry. They have set up hotels and restaurants, they are running taxi companies and tours and travel agencies. Somalis living in Disapora may be willing and ready to come to Somalia and see its attractions; how about locals? Domestic tourism is low at the moment.
When most Somalis travel, they do so to visit each other or for business purposes. They do not do it as tourism. This is top on our list of areas that need to be looked into as soon as possible. We are currently working on promotional packages for local tourists. In the eyes of the public, Somalia is a dangerous place. This is both true and in some cases an exaggeration. How are you planning on dealing with such negative public perception? There are things that as an association we have little say or influence over. Like peace, and stability. We need those and we must have them. We need to change the perception using an aggressive media campaign.
Our plan right now is to work with the government in terms of ensuring peace and stability. What is your biggest source market at the moment? As far as I know, people from the Diaspora- Somalis, and non-Somalis from abroad. Local tourism is yet to pick up but I hope it soon does. Tell us about the government’s contribution in the tourism sector in the country?
The entire reconstruction process of the country is good for tourism. We need proper structures, right tourism management bodies and the right political environment to create more confidence in our tourism sector. What does the right tourism bodies in this case refer to? Right now, tourism is under the Directorate of Tourism and Wildlife. This is in the office of the Prime Minister. For more effectiveness, I would recommend that it be made a stand- alone ministry. What are the most peculiar features of your tourism industry?
I can tell you four things that stand out in Somalia. The coastline, our heritage, the culture- food, language, dance, music and dress, and the people. What do you see as the future of tourism in this country? We would want to see this country become one of the leading tourists’ destinations in the region. We would also like to develop regional tourism packages by forging closer links with the neighbouring countries.