Socotra. The name conjures images of the exotic and unknown, an island paradise, with breathtaking beaches and a truly alien landscape. With high granite mountains, deep valleys, frankincense trees, limestone plateaus, lagoons and wind-battered cliffs that drop straight into the sea, just 50,000 people call Socotra home. Where is this place, you might ask. The answer is Yemen.
A people's revolution in Yemen last year resulted in the ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled for 22 years, only for him to be replaced by one of his deputies. Most 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 a worthwhile tourist destination.
So there was some understandable concern from my friends and family when I told them I was off to Yemen for 10 days, to visit Socotra. Considered one of the jewels of biodiversity in the Arabian Sea, Socotra is unlike anywhere else on the planet. Referred to as the Galapagos of the Middle East, the island was created after the African and Arabian land masses split some 20 million years ago. In 2009 UNESCO named the entire island a world heritage site. 90% 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. And they speak their own (unwritten) language too -Socotri - which pre-dates Arabic.
Socotri boys show off their catch.
People here live by the seasons. There are very few paved roads. Even the capital, Hadibo, lacks basic infrastructure. Traveling through Socotra you get a sense that people here are content. They have a tight-knit community of villages (some as small as a few mud houses), everyone knows everyone else going back several generations, they look out for each other, and cherish their unique identity.
Mainland Yemen has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world. On Socotra, there are no guns. On mainland Yemen, most men carry a ceremonial dagger (janbiya) wherever they go. On Socotra, nobody carries a dagger. This place feels different from the rest of Yemen, 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 tirelessly to promote Socotra for many years. And things had finally started to pick up when the latest crisis began. In 2010 for example, around 4,000 tourists visited Socotra. The following year just 250 tourists came to the island. Abduljameel tells me there's a sense of fear among many travelers 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 the capital Hadibo. It functions more like a co-operative than a company. He enlists the help of fishermen, guides and drivers, from right 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 to make ends meet. 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. It's a shame they're not showing more tourists around their unique island home, applying the skills they have.
From left, Mehdi (guide), Sami (guide) and Hany (driver)
The Middle East can be a volatile place. In the latest regional flare-up, protests over the recent release of a U.S. film about the prophet Muhammad, and the subsequent publication in France of cartoons deemed offensive to many Muslims, has caught the attention of the world. Yemen's capital Sanaa saw a massive rally outside the U.S. embassy. Similar protests were held across the world, from Tunisia to Pakistan. 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.
Flights to Socotra depart from Sanaa (Yemen) and Sharjah (UAE).
Chasing fish in the shallows
Qalansiya - one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen