by Robert La Bua
Despite an intense growth in global tourism in the past decade leaving virtually no corner of the world undiscovered, the allure of Africa remains a special memory for those who have been and a vivid fantasy for those who have not. As the continent least explored by mass tourism, Africa still holds surprises for intrepid travelers willing―eager―to venture beyond the few countries on the continent where tourism has made inroads as a major factor in their national economies. Especially in light of recent developments in global travel, destinations receiving few visitors will become very appealing to travelers seeking the excitement and stimulation of the past together with increased safety and health precautions now expected across the world.
And so we come to Djibouti, a country where tourism is virtually nonexistent. How often in the world today do we see a nation completely untouched by the influences of tourism? No postcard racks, no touts selling daytours, and, most appealingly, no hordes of visitors gawking obliviously as they toddle down the street dripping ice cream on their T-shirts. The fact that a tourism infrastructure is refreshingly absent does not mean there is nothing to see, however. On the contrary, Djibouti is an amazing place with some of Africa’s most unusual attractions and most rewarding leisure activities.
A small country easily missed on the map, The Republic Of Djibouti is overwhelmed in size by its three large neighbors, those being Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Its location is also its economic salvation; in addition to serving as the seaport for the entire economy of a landlocked Ethiopia, Djibouti’s position at the meeting of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean is of high strategic value to a number of world powers, resulting an a large foreign military presence that by necessity brings stability and calm to the country. Djibouti is, therefore, a very safe place to visit; after all, who would bother a country having no natural resources and many powerful friends? With a substantial expatriate population complementing the colorful local culture, Djibouti is an unexpectedly cosmopolitan destination; don’t be surprised if your guide is an African woman dressed in local attire who reveals her Swedish nationality only after a long discussion in perfect English about environmentalism, world politics, and the work of aid organizations in the country.
The Red Sea coast is the main attraction for the few visitors who do venture to Djibouti. Long known among the divers as one of the best spots in the world thanks to clear waters permitting exceptional depth of view of the coral reefs and the colorful fish inhabiting them, Djibouti is most famous among the world’s diving élite for its whale sharks, the world’s largest fish and one whose intimidating name belies its gentle personality―and its diet, which consists mostly of plankton and fish larvae. From November to January, whale sharks congregate very close to the Djiboutian coast, adding further appeal to the underwater world where abundant marine life is on show throughout the year. Though snorkeling is rewarding enough, the best underwater sights lie at slightly lower depths. Experienced divers will be in their nirvana; for diving neophytes, Djibouti’s Moucha Islands are a great place to be ‘baptized’, as the jovial dive instructors say. Private lessons and excursions are easily arranged.
A water attraction of a different sort is Lac Assal, the lowest point on the African continent and the saltiest body of water on Earth (yes, saltier than the more famous Dead Sea). After driving two hours across stark landscapes from Djibouti’s capital, also named Djibouti, Lac Assal is a startlingly beautiful sight. Ringed by a salt crust the envy of any margarita glass, the brilliant whiteness glints in the bright sunshine and enhances the color of the water, rich in minerals that leave the skin soft and smooth after a swim. Due to its extreme salinity, nothing lives in the water except the hope for epidermal rejuvenation in the minds of those who swim in it. Close to the lake is a series of curious geological phenomena: a rivulet where waters of vastly different temperatures (emanating from different sources) run side by side; fumaroles emitting smoke to remind visitors that the Earth’s crust is a mere 3km in depth in this area of volcanic activity, as opposed to the usual 15km; and the meeting of the three tectonic plates where the legendary Rift Valley enters the African continent―an austere but powerful sight. Further afield is Lac Abbé, whose barren landscape was chosen as the perfect post-apocalyptic location for filming the original Planet Of The Apes movie.
Just outside the capital is the Refuge Décan, a place where native animals formerly held in European zoos are repatriated to Djibouti to live out their days on an expansive property. Local animals found injured are brought here, too, for their recovery before being re-released into the wild. Though the public is welcome to visit, Refuge Décan’s main objectives are to serve the animals and to educate school groups and government departments such as Customs about the perils of wildlife trafficking. Visitors can walk within the zebra, oryx and ostrich enclosures and can nearly do the same at the leopard enclosures. Best not to climb into the scorpion display, though.
Arrangements for excursions to Moucha Islands, Lac Assal, Réfuge Décan and anywhere else in Djibouti can be made through Djibouti Palace Kempinski, the only five-star hotel in the country. The quietly busy lobby of the Kempinski is a United Nations of nationalities, with French economic consultants, Japanese generals, African diplomats, German aid workers, American oilmen, and Gulf royalty adding to the local government officials who use Kempinski’s stylish public spaces as their living room and its large ballroom as a venue for high-level meetings and events. Djibouti Palace Kempinski maintains the same high standard of excellence found in all Kempinski properties throughout the world; the hotel offers large suites for short- or long-term stays, an array of fine restaurants, a beautiful spa and wellness center, and, most importantly, exceptional service―all in a splendid, seaside location. Kempinski guests can have confidence in knowing the logistics of their visit will always be well handled; the hotel looks after every aspect of a stay from the moment of arrival to the moment of departure. An expedited arrival service means Kempinski has a handler on the ground waiting at the airport as an escort through Immigration procedures. Unlike many African countries, the Republic Of Djibouti issues tourist visas on arrival; a letter of invitation issued by Djibouti Palace Kempinski further facilitates the arrival process. On departure, Kempinski maintains a private lounge at the airport for the exclusive use of its guests as part of its airport transfer service.
decandjibouti.org (in French)