BY EROMO EGBEJULE
One of the world’s tiniest countries is preparing to surprise the world again.
At Club Menelik, the buzzing nightclub on the ground floor of the eponymous three-star hotel in the city of Djibouti, the party runs nonstop, even at midnight on a Monday. On the dance floor, men and women, old and young, twirl happily all night long to Nigerian and French pop hits. The regulars are Djiboutians, Ethiopians, Americans and from across Europe; on occasion, there are visitors with Arabic and Hispanic roots.
That may appear a loud and strange welcome to this country of 950,000 citizens — a majority of them Muslims — where working weeks stretch from Sunday to Thursday. But it’s part of a carefully crafted plan that represents the government’s resolve to increase attention to the overlooked tourist spots of Djibouti, at a time when the country is opening up to the world like never before.
Since Djibouti became independent in 1977, its unique strategic location — the tiny nation sits on the Horn of Africa — has drawn Western powers like the U.S. and Italy to set up military bases here, following the example of the country’s former colonial ruler, France. But it’s only in recent years that the country has grown confident enough to position itself as a regional logistics hub. China opened a naval base in Djibouti last year. And Djibouti, keen to attract the attention of its landlocked neighbor, Ethiopia, and other countries in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) bloc, has established four new seaports, a second airport and a brand-new rail link — components of a free-trade zone, backed by investment from China and the Middle East — all in the past decade.
All of this has fueled a flurry of tourists and visitors, and corresponding ambition within the country’s government, which wants to dramatically increase incoming tourist numbers — currently under 100,000 — to 500,000 a year by 2035, under the Vision 2035 the country has unveiled. It has plenty to offer: Osman Abdi Mohamed, who was appointed director-general of the Office National du Tourisme de Djibouti a little over a year ago, lists out Lac Assal — the world’s third-lowest spot on land, at 153 meters below sea level — Lac Bee to the country’s north, and beaches where tourists can swim with whale sharks as among major attractions.
“Tourism is very important to us here,” says Mohamed, adding that the country has witnessed a 14 percent increase in incoming tourists since 2016.
Flying into Djibouti is already getting much easier than it used to be, when weekly flights of Air France, Ethiopian Airlines and Yemenia were the only options. Now, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines, Kenya Airways and regional airlines like Somali-owned Daallo Airlines have joined the club, and Ethiopian Airlines flies every day of the week. In addition, major hotel conglomerates, says Mohamed, are in touch with the government to explore the possibility of opening in Djibouti.
There’s a lot more that can be done for the tourism sector, though, says Noura Youssouf, who runs Hotel Residence de l’Europe, next door to the Menelik. Her clientele is increasing, and the government is now moving in the right direction, but she isn’t convinced tourism has always been a top priority for those in power. And for some tourists at least, she suggests, Djibouti is an add-on destination rather than the principal magnet drawing them to the region.
Paramedics of China’s hospital ship Peace Ark before its arrival at the port of Djibouti on Aug. 23, 2017. The ship will provide medical services for local and Chinese residents working in Djibouti. Source: Getty
“They come for the season of the whale sharks [December to February] and Lac Assal,” she says. “Basically, they visit Ethiopia or Kenya, and they end up in Djibouti for an ‘aquatic safari.’”
Many locals are also concerned about a growth in prostitution that they link to the influx of foreign visitors. At the turn of the century, prostitutes here were mostly Ethiopians working “to help their families back home” who would return to their nation after a few years to start afresh, says a restaurant owner on condition of anonymity. Now, the restaurateur says, many Djiboutians with local family support — and often no dire financial need — are turning to prostitution in search of what he calls “easy money instead of hard work.”
But amid those worries, unprecedented opportunities are also arriving at Djibouti’s shores. Budget minister Bodeh Ahmed Robleh predicted a 7 percent growth in the economy in 2017 due to the major logistics investments, a statistic echoed by the World Bank in its October 2017 economic outlook. Perhaps in response, new hospitality hubs have sprung up and are blossoming.
The Djibouti Palace Kempinski, one of two five-star hotels in the country, launched its new Safari nightclub recently. Around it, a couple of bars cater to tourists; there’s also a budget hotel with swimming pools and billiards tables. Some hotels are owned by Ethiopians — the Menelik is named as a tribute to the all-conquering emperor believed to be the son of King Solomon of Israel — and now operate longer hours on weekdays and weekends. Ethiopians are everywhere on the streets too. Some run small restaurants and act as guides, while others work as waiters, hostesses and hookers. Immigration is easy, thanks to Djibouti’s visa-on-arrival policy for most countries.
Last December, the country’s first shopping mall opened. The Dubai-funded Bawadi Mall — opposite the presidential office complex — has a bowling area and a cinema. “Another mall could open this year,” adds Mohamed, outlining hopes that this boom will in turn bring more foreign investment and jobs. Djibouti’s tourism sector employs 4,500 people at the moment, and the country wants to up that figure to 30,000 in the next five years.
That won’t be easy, but Djibouti has proven itself full of surprises. Mohamed hints at plans to bring tourists from Ethiopia and Kenya, by working with travel agencies and introducing electronic visa applications this year.
And Djibouti’s dreams aren’t restricted to its borders. “We will build a success story here first,” says Mohamed, draining the coffee mug on his desk as he prepares to go to a meeting with the tourism minister. “And then we will try across the region.”