Should you travel to Socotra Island in Yemen? It might be a bit strange for me to ask this question after you’ve seen some of the photos and probably wondering how to get there. The alien island of Socotra is incredibly unique so it’s not surprising that many people really want to visit.
I’ve been wanting to travel to Socotra for years, but after my visit, I cannot honestly tell you if tourism in Socotra is entirely a good thing.
I’m not going to tell you not to go to Socotra, especially after I went myself (that would sound hypocritical, as I already experienced its beauty), but I would like to ask you to consider certain things before your visit as a tourist. I’m also aware that tourism in Socotra cannot be stopped.
Things to Think About Before Traveling to Socotra
How Much Are Locals Benefiting from You Traveling to Socotra?
Before the Yemeni war, there were only a few local Socotri companies and guides that could arrange your trip and recommendations were spreading through word of mouth.
These days in the era of the internet, blogs and Instagram, you can book a trip to Socotra through many agencies that specialize in these so-called ‘hardcore places’ – unsurprisingly none of them are locally based. Slogans of these companies are always the same and somehow promote the places as cool because your parents are afraid of going there: “destinations your mother would rather you stay away from”, “places you should not tell your mother about” and so on.
To be clear, I don’t think anyone should have any issues with a middleman making money off organizing a tour, especially when they’re doing all the legwork like booking your visas, flights, bringing tents, and talking to locals. Personally, I think it’s obviously fair.
Regardless of the “agency” or person you’re booking your trip with, your trip will be facilitated by the locals – there’s no way around it. The big question, however, is how much do the locals actually profit from you traveling there?
The price for a trip to Socotra isn’t a secret – regardless of whom you’re going with, it’s not cheap. Plus, due to just one weekly flight which for foreigners is crazy pricy ($800-1300ish return from Cairo or Dubai), it’s always a 7-day tour. Total tour prices range between $3000 and $4500.
As you can see these prices are different and the standard does not depend on the price, as there are no luxury hotels on Socotra (there are just 3 hotels and they’re not always available anyway), so you’re camping in remote places regardless of where you’re coming from.
I wrote a separate post about how locals are or aren’t always benefiting from your money. Locals charge a rate per person, so regardless if you’re a group of 4 of 15 it’s the same price. For a solo traveler, things would be more expensive as you still need a car.
The thing is, foreign guides don’t always know anything about the destination. In fact, quite often they’ve never even been there before. I went on a trip with one of these companies to another destination only to realize that the “guide” had never been there before.
Frankly, I wasn’t the only one in the group wondering where my money went (since I know how much things cost if you cut out the middle man), and more importantly what was the point of it.
What bugs me though, is when a company advertises conservation efforts, but then they bring their friends over making it 4 foreign “guides” coming on a trip on top of the local team. This did not provide anything extra for the guests that locals wouldn’t have provided.
Not to mention the fact that with 4 “guides” one would expect a very organized trip, but we never knew where we were going and we often felt rushed. Many photo opportunities were blocked because the organizers decided to take their own photos instead. I always thought that was the right and fair thing to do to give your paying group a priority.
Ironically, it was actually a “good tour”, because there was a big group on the island at the same time who sneaked alcohol in and was partying and yelling every night to the extent their drivers were so exhausted they could barely drive, as they weren’t able to sleep.
Ecotourism Issue in Socotra
Every single company arranging trips to Socotra is promoting ecotourism. Socotra is being introduced as a place to go remote camping, experience unique nature, sleep under the stars, and so on.
According to the definition, ecotourism is: is a form of tourism involving visiting fragile, pristine, and relatively undisturbed natural areas. It conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education. Education is meant to be inclusive of both staff and guests.
Principles of ecotourism include:
- Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts.
- Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
- Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
- Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
- Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.
- Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates.
- Design, construct, and operate low-impact facilities.
- Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.
Quite frankly, this is definitely not what’s happening with tourism in Socotra in most cases.
Let’s start with minimalizing social impacts and cultural respect, for example, Socotra is still a part of Yemen which means it’s a very Muslim country. Women are rarely seen and if they do come out they’re wearing full-on burqa and niqab. Yet, when tourists arrive no one is covering up.
We were asked to cover our legs when visiting small towns, but anywhere else a bikini and shorts were a way to go because “there’s no one around”. I packed a bunch of long dresses, shawls, and covered swimwear, and never got to use most of it because everyone was running around in shorts and bikinis.
While it’s true that in most spots it was just our group and possibly another group of tourists, we did occasionally see women passing by, our drivers and cooks (about 8 of them) were local too and we always ran into local kids. I cannot claim and say that anyone was offended as I speak no Socotri and the guides claimed they’re “used to tourists”.
I can only say that based on my deep conversations in other Muslim countries not everyone was happy with it. Especially when a tourist is walking in a crop top through Hadibo – the busy main town in Socotra.
Not to mention respecting local customs and wishes. Socotra is a place where you can camp wherever you want. In Diksam Plateau we camped in designated spots, not to disturb the villagers as advised by our local guide.
However, I was told that even a year before one of the foreign organizers decided to set camp next to Dragon Blood Trees and when locals objected, he decided to bribe them to let the group stay.
There’s a thorough luggage check upon entry and exit from Socotra (although it’s just enforced on women’s carry-on bags on the way out) and you could see many bottles of alcohol being confiscated.
But, not all bottles were confiscated since one of the groups had crazy drunken parties screaming and jumping off tables every night next to other camps who wanted to sleep, not to mention very displeased local guides.
This doesn’t surprise me, considering the fact that one of the companies is advertising Socotra trips as: “Beaches, hikes, lagoons, camping, cold showers, dragon blood trees, smuggled booze, and lots of crazy stories.”
Dragon Blood Trees of Socotra
I’ve yet to see any company making any efforts regarding conservation. I’m highly aware that because of the situation in Yemen (for those unaware Yemeni Civil War is an ongoing conflict that began in 2015 between two factions; while Socotra wasn’t that much affected by it apart from Saudis blocking the access for a while, the island is still ruled by Yemen) doing anything at the moment is problematic, but tourists could help a bit.
Most dragon blood trees, which Socotra is mostly famous for, are very old and unfortunately, there are no new trees growing anywhere apart from a small nursery. Why? Because of hungry goats and wild typhoons.
While we cannot do anything about the latter, the goat issue could be helped. Goats are very cute, but Socotra has way too many of them (goats were brought there by humans, they’re not endemic to Socotra) that are literally everywhere destroying the natural flora and eating baby dragon blood trees.
I felt the same way as some National Geographic journalists – it was quite sad to see. When I came back home and started reading up about it, many botanist enthusiasts interested in endemic species were quite saddened by what they saw.
People would ask: why don’t locals do something about it? To put it simply, life in Socotra (or mainland Yemen) isn’t easy. It’s understandable that locals don’t have the resources or financial help to rescue the trees.
However, we tourists do. Another remote island of South Georgia had a similar issue, but with rats. The whole project of removing the rats started with visitors’ ideas and donations and was successfully finished in 2018. It’s all possible with a little will, especially considering that people are can afford to pay a high price for a trip to Socotra can spare some money.
The Trash Problem
It would be unrealistic for me to present Socotra as a natural paradise without mentioning that it’s also so full of trash that it can make many sad. There is literally not a square meter on land that doesn’t have goat feces (Socotra does have a goat problem), or trash, or both.
When I addressed the issue of trash on social media many people weren’t aware of the presence of trash on beaches. Unsurprisingly, most people who travel almost exclusively to resorts or hotel beaches won’t see it, as trash is being cleaned every day by the staff.
Socotra isn’t alone in the trash problem. All over the world, including popular islands of Bali, Easter Island, Boracay (I actually received death threats for addressing this issue there, but the government finally closed the island a few years later) – all have this problem, Tulum, Maldives even has a dedicated trash islands that finally got more attention thanks to my friend Allison.
The truth is, many people don’t want to see it. When I asked some fellow Polish tourists leaving Socotra how they felt about it, their response was ‘what trash?’. Another person told me that “people travel to have fun, not to care about the problems locals should fix, so they just ignore it when they see it.”
I sincerely hope not all tourists think that. In many places including Socotra, Syria (where a similar trash problem is an issue), or anywhere in Africa, locals aren’t in a position to do much on a bigger scale, or even a small scale. But we – those more privileged, do. We all share the same planet together and should take care of it together.
While our group did a beach cleanup that resulted in a full truck of waste within an hour, it changed nothing in the long run. It just made everyone feel a bit better and we got local boys to come help as well, but in a week things will look the same. If every group of tourists did it could be the start of a bigger initiative.
Plastic is a problem everywhere, I’m not discovering something new with what I just told you. But, what baffled me was the amount of trash we – visitors, produced ourselves. Every meal resulted in a giant bag of trash if not two of them.
When you ask a Socotri what do they eat every day the answer will be simple: rice, local bread, fish and occasionally a goat or cow. They’re used to it. For foreigners, they made spaghetti, brought vegetables, instant noodles, spicy sauce, and small water bottles.
As you can imagine, everything has to be imported to Socotra and with imported things, single-use plastic is coming as well. Villages have no form of trash collection, so as a result the trash can get stuck there.
The Impact of Tourists on Socotra
If you look at TripAdvisor you can see that people loved the fact that there weren’t many other tourists on the island. Even back in 2019 there were about 15-30 foreigners on the island every week.
When I went – in March 2020, it was a completely different story. Our flight brought over 100-120 tourists, the flight before also had a high number and film crews, and the ones after (before the cancellations due to coronavirus) were sold out as well.
Socotra got a break during covid as it wasn’t reachable, but now the interest and amount of tours available tripled.
One could think that even 200 people per week on the island would be great for the local economy, especially if you compare it to another natural spot – Galapagos, which welcomes over 2500 tourists per week.
However, Socotra is just one island and all tourists go to the same spots, just on different dates. Once you’ve been to Socotra you realize that everyone goes to the same exact spots. If the number of tourists keeps increasing these spots won’t be the same anymore.
In places where tourists are a known source of income, such as Cuba, you can see children begging for candies, pens and basically anything. It’s a difficult subject of whether you should bring donations or not, as it gets children used to it.
But, giving away a ton of candies and chocolates to locals and kids isn’t something tourists should be doing. In Socotra, locals have no access to dental care, why would we contribute to the damage of their teeth with all that sugar?
There are plenty of villages around Africa where at the first sight of a tourist, they yell for “bonbons” or “give me a pen” and it’s not a good thing for anyone. You could rather buy some dragon blood from the locals.
If you read anything about Socotra you must have heard of Abdullah the Caveman from Detwah Lagoon. Abdullah is a guy who was raised in a cave his mother was born in. But, based on some blogs you could think he’s an actual caveman. Which is not true.
He has a smartphone, speaks great English and these days lives in a nearby town with his wife and 7 kids. He comes to the cave to stay during rainy seasons, but mostly when he’s requested by the tourists.
A boulder next to the cave says ‘welcome’ on it, it’s not as remote as it may be presented. When we reached his cave another group of tourists was just leaving.
We got served some mussels Abdullah just caught and cooked for us and then requested to go fishing with him. It was supposed to be the best experience in Socotra – but frankly, it was the only one I decided to leave early and walk back to camp on my own.
It wasn’t because of Abdullah. He was a very nice man who simply realized he could be a tourist attraction. He showed us how he fishes with bare hands to feed himself and his family in the lagoon. Whether it’s mussels, crab, fish, octopus he’ll catch it and eat it. There’s nothing wrong with that.
He pulled a giant octopus from the water to show us and explained that they were friends. No one else dared to touch the little guy, but then it came to the pufferfish…
Most of the people in my group have never seen pufferfish, myself included. They’re cute and when they inflate they look even more adorable. Guess what became the biggest tourist attraction over a few days we stayed at Detwah Lagoon? Pulling these poor pufferfish out of the water to make them inflate and take photos.
Locals might do it for tourists, but they don’t know any better. I’m not a sealife specialist, but even I knew this was horrible and it harms the pufferfish. Similar to pulling starfish out of the water, they can die because of it.
Ironically, all our foreign guides were prime persuaders of this behavior along with someone who runs a local travel agency back home. I left when I noticed how someone in my group was kicking the pufferfish because ‘it wasn’t coming out to the surface for him’.
Our group wasn’t the only one that did it – every other group in Socotra was showing off their holding pufferfish photos claiming it was ‘the best experience ever’. Can you imagine what will happen when even more tourists come to the island?
I’m not telling you not to go to Socotra. I highly recommend you consider these issues, especially if you care for the environment.
While no one is perfect and even the biggest sustainability supporters made mistakes in the past, but if we all care for the future of Socotra we need to consider making things right.