Posted on May 5, 2010 - by mira
First appeared in The Daily Star
HADIBU, Yemen: Yemen’s Socotra Archipelago is the Arab world’s equivalent of the Galapagos Islands in its biodiversity. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it boasts of indigenous species of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world.
The archipelago consists of the island of Socotra, over 3,600 square kilometers in size, and three much smaller islets. It’s located at around 350 kilometers south of Yemen’s coast in the Indian Ocean. Over a third of the island’s approximately 825 plant species, the majority of its reptile and land snail species, and some of its bird species are endemic to Socotra alone, according to UNESCO.
Its migrant birds include threatened species, and it has hundreds of species of corals and other sea life, including fish, lobster and shrimp. The Dragon’s Blood tree is unique to the island, and the tree’s blood-red sap is used and sold by locals for medicinal purposes. Socotra has six nature sanctuaries that include land and sea areas.
But the inhabitants of this abundant and unique island, already struggling with poverty, are suffering further this year.
Nineteen-year-old Bilqis wears a colorful dress of yellow and green that reveals her eight month pregnancy with her first child. Inquisitive and high-spirited, she lives in a roughly 3-by-2-meter stone shed in a mountainous part of the island, not too far from where tourists stop to admire the forest of Dragon’s Blood trees. Her parents’ residence is nearby and, slightly bigger, houses her 9 younger siblings.
The family raises goats, as is customary among Socotris. Their water source is a several meter-long black hose that delivers water from a source on top of the next hill. Bilqis says they receive water only once a week and have to ration it to prolong its use until the next delivery.
“We eat rice for lunch and bread for dinner,” says Bilqis. “Sometimes we eat goat meat. If it rains and there’s grass, we have goat milk.”
“If not … ,” she shrugs.
Her 14-month old brother naps in an improvised cradle of cloth and rope suspended from the ceiling. The family’s modest possessions hang from nails in the walls or are stored on a shelf. The shack lacks modern appliances – there isn’t a fridge, a stove, or a washing machine in sight. Bilqis opens the plastic container of a commercial product that now serves as storage for cumin, and sprinkles some of the spice on the boiling rice. The charred cooking pot sits atop rocks, a handful of logs crackle underneath.
The local English weekly Yemen Post recently reported a rise in the island’s tourism last year. It said nearly 3,800 tourists visited Socotra in 2009, up from 2,500 in 2008.
But Socotri locals said last week tourism is worse this year. They say fewer tourists have visited so far. They blame the slump in tourism on Yemen’s conflict with rebels in the north and the threat of Al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen, which gained significant international attention following the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt on a Northwest airliner headed to Detroit.
“Tourism is very slow,” says Taha al-Qubati, manager at the Summerland Hotel in the capital, Hadibu. “We’ve had many cancellations in the last two months, many of which were reservations that had been confirmed. Over 400 cancellations so far. And this is our high season, from December to April.”
In the northwestern town of Qalansia, Salem, a fisherman, expresses the same sentiment.
“We have very few tourists this year,” he says. “It’s because of the problems.”
For $60, Salem takes tourists on boat rides where they can snap photos of herons on a white sandy beach, of tens of seagulls lazing away on rocks and a pod of dolphins swimming along. A curious sea turtle might even poke its head out of the water.
Socotra’s population is estimated to be around 70,000,with the majority having migrated to the capital and other urban coastal cities. Most live without running water, electricity or health care, according to the Socotra Conservation and Development Program, and only around 20 kilometers of roads are paved, mainly connecting major cities and towns. The island lacks taxis. Visitors have to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a driver to get around.
Some Socotris have become tourist-minded, charging around $7 for a simple meal of fish and rice, for example. Other tourism-related options include rentals of snorkeling, diving and camping equipment, as well as hiring a guide and a cook. The island’s tourism infrastructure is basic. Only a few hotels can be found.
Due to a lengthy period of isolation, Socotris have their own language and culture, distinct from those of the Yemeni mainland. For example, they do not carry thejambiya dagger traditionally worn by Yemeni men.
Bilqis asks visitors if they brought medicine with them. A woman in the village is bed-ridden with a fever and cough and needs medical attention, she says. A crow stands on the roof of her shack. It waits for leftovers, as the cooking pot produces a thin screen of smoke that drifts out of the doorway.
Leave a Reply
Here's your chance to speak.