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Somaliland (Somali: Somaliland, Arabic: صوماللاند Ṣūmāliland) is officially an autonomous region of the country of Somalia. Unofficially, it is a de facto sovereign state. The local Somaliland authorities declared the region's independence from Somalia in May 1991, but neither the Somali federal government nor any other country or international organization has recognized its sovereignty. Somaliland does not exercise control over the eastern parts of its territory (this region is controlled by Puntland) and has limited control of its border with Djibouti, as this region has been claimed by the autonomous state of Awdalland. Somaliland is in northwestern Somalia, on the Gulf of Aden, bordering Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Although the government is trying to establish a modicum of safety here, visiting is still not advised by the governments of Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US - although the area is viewed as safer than most of its neighbouring East African countries. The local government is very anxious to show its stability and, as a result, foreigners are generally treated with respect and interest. However, high unemployment and increasing discontent at being an unrecognised island of stability in a grim region does cause some resentment towards outsiders, particularly NGO workers.
For visitors exercising caution and respect, Somaliland is a fascinating and safe place to visit.
- Hargeisa — the capital city of Somaliland, and perhaps the safest city in the entire region. It's rather cosmopolitan and with a rich history and culture.
- Berbera — nicknamed beach city, is a major port and, apart from expatriate remittances, the economic lifeline of the Somaliland economy.
- Zeila — a historic city near Djibouti and the stunningly beautiful Zeila Coast.
After being a British protectorate, Somaliland gained its independence in 1960 and, just 5 days later, voluntarily entered into a union with the also newly independent former Italian colony of Somalia. Before long, struggles erupted, but Somalia remained lashed together under the dictator Mohammad Siad Barre until a vicious civil war broke out in 1988. By its conclusion in 1991, Somaliland was bombed flat. It is still recovering today: you will see shells of tanks along major roads, blast marks from artillery along hillsides; however, only a few bombed-out buildings or ruins remaining in cities.
After 1991, Somaliland began the painstaking process of separating itself. By 2010 it had its own free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections, with the presidential elections notable in particular for unseating the incumbent in a very close race. A remarkably peaceful transition of power followed.
Somaliland is a fairly peaceful region. Violence is rare, and there is an active police force to ensure that laws are respected.
As with the remainder of the former Somalia, law comes from three sources: the government, Islam (Sharia law), and clan (Xeer law). Extended family is of paramount importance in Somaliland, and indeed, the country now largely survives on remittances from relatives working abroad. It is customary in Somali culture, to ask another Somali upon meeting him/her, who his ancestors were several generations back, to establish which (sub-)clan (s)he belongs to. Because no other country recognizes Somaliland as independent, there are few employment opportunities and joblessness is estimated to be at a staggering 80%.
December-March is probably the best time to visit, as then you will avoid both the two rainy seasons and the sweltering, heat of the July-September dry season (over 44 degrees Celsius).
Fees used to be charged upon entry at the airport in Hargeisa. For travelers with a valid visa, or at least a valid visa from the Addis Ababa liaison office, there should be no more fees upon entry. A letter indicating this is issued along with the visa. There should also be no hidden fees in the form of a mandatory currency conversion at a bad exchange rate as has been reported by travelers in the past. Note that the staff at the airport might try to pester travelers for money (first $60, then $10 and then eventually they let me in), hold your ground, be firm and tell them that you will not pay anything as the Addis Ababa liaison office has told you not to.
You need a Somaliland visa to enter. Visas from Somalia are not accepted. Most travellers get a visa in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia or the Somaliland Mission in London. You can get details from the Somaliland government website or contact the Somaliland liaison office in Addis Ababa. To get to the office, which moves often (this information is current as of January 2016), walk about 100 metres north of the Edna Mall along Namibia Avenue until you see Sheger Building on your left. Turn right here at a small road that should have a sign for the embassy. Walk along the dirt road for 300-400 metres until you see another sign on your right. Turn right there and you will see the embassy. The embassy officially opens at 8:30 but the best time to turn up is between 9:30 and 10:00 as the ambassador often turns up around 9:30. The embassy is open on Fridays but not Saturday, Sunday or Ethiopian holidays. Visas cost $70 and are issued on the spot. You will also need a passport photo, a copy of your passport (available for 1 birr at the mall before the turn or at the Sheger Building). You are issued a visa and a letter indicating that you should not pay anything at the border when entering the country (traveler report: Jan 2016, I was hassled for $10, showed the letter, stood my ground and argued for a bit and was let in at the airport without paying anything more or having to change money). A Somaliland visa is also allegedly available from the Somaliland representation in Djibouti. The unofficial Somaliland "embassy" in London will also issue a visa. The whole process is refreshingly unbureaucratic and can be handled by post, which makes London the most convenient place to get a visa for travellers who live in Europe and/or want to obtain a visa before travelling to the region.
There is an international airport in Hargeisa with flights to and from Dubai, Djibouti City, and many other cities and towns across the Horn of Africa and the Somaliland region. There is also an international airport at Berbera with many international flights, most notably to Dubai. Note that some 'flights' from Hargeisa actually start with a bus ride to Berbera. If you are not Somali you may have difficulty getting through the police checkpoints unless you have written permission from the commander of police or take an armed guard (the Jubba flight from Hargeisa to Dubai is like this).
Since 2008 Ethiopian Airlines does not fly to Hargeisa International airport. Since Daallo Airlines is wildly inconsistent, Jubba Airways or African Express from either Dubai or Djibouti is your best bet. They have several flights a week and connect Hargeisa to Djibouti, Dubai, Nairobi and Entebbe. Djibouti to Hargeisa is about an hour-long flight. Dubai to Berbera takes three hours.
All flights to and from Somaliland are expensive by most standards - there are no budget airlines. The cheapest flights will be to and from Djibouti, usually around USD125 one-way when taxes and fees are figured in (but not including the entry/exit/visa/exchange fees, which will tack on about another USD100 to any trip).
The most reliable way to get in seems to be with African Express, which has connections in Dubai, Nairobi, and other smaller Middle Eastern and East African ports of call. Tickets can be reserved in advance, but not purchased unless you are at their ticketing office - check back in to ensure you have a seat reserved if you will not be in the city you fly out of before your flight!
- African Express is a Kenyan airline that flies to/from Berbera, primarily from Mogadishu, Nairobi and Dubai, but also less frequently from smaller locations such as Sharjah, Entebbe or Jeddah. Major routes use MD-82 jets, shorter hops may be on a DC-9 or 120-ER.
- Jubba Airways is a Somali airline. Their flights go from Hargeisa and Berbera. They use a Soviet-made Ilyushin-18 aircraft. They are the only airline to/from Somaliland that currently accepts online booking reservations, but confirm with them seven days in advance before flying.
- Daallo Airlines used to be the only international carrier to fly to Somaliland or the former Somalia. As of August 2011, they were open, but are famed for inconsistent service. Earlier in 2011, they had been shut down. They operate 2-3 services per week from Djibouti also using an Ilyushin-18 aircraft.
Also be aware that Jubba Airways usually waits until enough people have purchased tickets before departing. You may be waiting a week or more for a flight, regardless of whether you have a ticket or not.
Ethiopian Air has regular flights to the border city of Jijiga. From Jijiga, Hargeisa is a few hours away by taxi.
Again, remember to re-confirm all flights 7 days in advance! All of the airlines above will not hesitate to sell your ticket to someone else if you don't take the warning seriously, Jubba in particular.
Ticket offices are closed on Friday (the beginning of the weekend in the Islamic world). Plan accordingly.
East African Safari Air Express has started running a regular service between Nairobi and Hargeisa, but it's very expensive (a return flight from Nairobi to Hargeisa costs USD600). They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or +254 20 6654321. As of April 2011, their flights NBO-HGA-NBO operate on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
It is possible to enter Somaliland from Ethiopia by road. You can avoid paying many of the fees charged at the airport. However, if you plan to leave Somaliland by road it is advisable to make Ethiopian Visa arrangements (multiple entry) before travelling to Somaliland as the process of getting an Ethiopian Visa in Hargeisa can be quite cumbersome and time-consuming (Info from January 2012: The Ethiopian visa in Hargeisa is easy to get, requires no paperwork and is available in one morning - cost US$20).
It is not possible to enter from Somalia, so don't even try.
Another option is the open border to the north to Djibouti. (Info from 2009: Public transport 4x4s leave Djibouti every day in the late afternoon and travel across the desert throughout the night to arrive in Hargeisa the next morning. They leave from Avenue 26 in Djibouti City, at a price of 5500 DJF).
Despite government efforts, there are still mines on some of the roads, look out for coloured rocks next to the road, if you see painted rocks do not leave the tarmac.
There is a bus service in Hargeisa, Burao, Berbera and Borama. There are also services between the major towns and adjacent villages operated by different types of vehicles such as 4 wheel drives and light goods vehicles (LGV).
Hitchhiking is possible near and within cities. Locals are friendly and will go out of their way to ensure that you make it to your destination. You will be offered telephone numbers to call for help, free food, and asked lots of questions about your home country. Hitchhiking between cities is less advisable. To travel outside of major cities, the central government requires foreigners to take an armed guard with them (see "Stay Safe" below).
The capital, Hargeisa, has a provincial museum. There is also a menagerie that includes lions, leopards, antelopes, birds, and reptiles. Outside of Hargeisa, is the Laas Gaal, a complex of caves and rock shelters that contain some of the earliest known art in Africa, dating back to 9,000 B.C.
For breakfast, Somalis eat a flat bread called laxoox and cereal or porridge made of millet or cornmeal. They also eat rice or noodles with sauce or meat for lunch. Pasta became very popular under Italian rule. Bananas are common in the south of the region. A traditional soup called maraq (also part of Yemen cuisine) is made of vegetables, meat and beans and is usually eaten with flat bread or pitta bread. Beans are usually eaten for dessert, and oat or corn patties and salad can be eaten too.
Somalis occasionally eat xalwo, a jelly-like sweet made with water, sugar, and honey, though peanuts are sometimes added. Somalis who have spent some time in the Middle East eat baklava. Dates are also popular in Somaliland.
In coastal areas, roasted camel meat, camel milk, fried sheep liver and all kinds of fresh seafood are popular.
It is considered polite for guests to leave a little bit of food on their plate after finishing a meal provided by their host. This shows that the guests were given enough food and thus treated hospitably.
Many Somalis adore spiced tea. Milk is also common in rural areas of Somaliland. Alcohol is prohibited and you will not find it publicly served anywhere in Somaliland.
There are hotels being constructed in all of Somaliland's major cities. Hargeisa has seen most development, with regards to its infrastructural capacity, the airport has been expanded to cater for an increase in tourists, both foreign and domestic.
Locals in Hargeisa drink tap water fixed by the Chinese government. The cleanliness is not perfect but adequate. However, it is better to play it safe and drink bottled water.
As with many developing countries, animals roam the streets and sanitation is poor. Be very aware of the risk of rabies. Bats may inhabit the countryside, and their bites can be nearly invisible, leaving a person unaware until it's too late.
There is a low risk of malaria in Somaliland, but the threat is still present. Many foreigners choose not to take anti-malarials.
Yellow fever is considered endemic in Somaliland. If you plan to travel to other countries that require proof of yellow fever vaccination, be sure you are vaccinated and have a certificate!
Vaccination against other endemic diseases common in developing countries (typhoid, polio, hepatitis A & B, etc.) is strongly recommended.
The infrastructure of Somaliland is still a shambles and that includes healthcare. If you have health problems or have concerns about getting treatment in an emergency, you will be putting yourself at great risk as the medical services in most areas are primitive and unsanitary by modern standards.
The most modernized and prominent hospital is the Edna Adan University Hospital in Hargeisa. However, it's mostly a maternity hospital and medical treatment there, although the staff are excellent, is limited by the serious dearth of resources in the country. Serious conditions will require medical evacuation to Ethiopia or possibly the Middle East. Come prepared or do not come at all.
Somaliland is a relatively safe place, particularly compared to neighbouring Somalia. Knowing a little of the local language or having an interpreter can go a long way in gaining information from the local population, which is a valuable tool if you wish to learn about the surrounding area.
Imprisonment and/or execution is the punishment for homosexuality here. So if you are gay and decide to visit, keep your sexual orientation secret.
The Somaliland government requires that all foreigners take armed guards when travelling outside of the major cities. These guards are known as SPUs (Special Protection Units) and are available from the local police department or the office of tourism in Hargeisa. The UN typically pays US$5 a day per SPU, but as a tourist it will be difficult to negotiate this price. SPUs will try to charge you anywhere from US$30 to US$40 a day, but US$15 a day is reasonable for both parties.
Under some circumstances it is possible to travel around Somaliland without an SPU. To do this you will need a letter from the commander of police. This can be obtained from the police HQ in Hargeysa (not the police station). Take the minibus to 'pepsi' (pronounced with a strong 'p') from the centre of town and get off just after you cross the dry river bed; the police station is on the right hand side of the road. The commander leaves at 11am each day so you will need to turn up in the morning and you may have to argue with the guard at the gate to be allowed in; they may try to send you to the SPU building round the corner. Stand firm and insist on seeing the Commander's secretary. The commander's secretary is very helpful and used to sorting this out. Give him the names of everywhere you wish to go and he will type up the letter and get the commander to sign it. Currently it's easy to get permission to travel to Berbera and Djibouti, other destinations may be harder and the situation may change.
The Republic of Somaliland is not recognized by any government. If you run into legal problems you are on your own, as there are no consulates to turn to for help. Learning local customs and laws is very important if you wish to minimize the chances of conflict with local authorities.
African Express, Jubba and Daallo airlines fly to Djibouti, Kenya, Mogadishu and Uganda. Be prepared to pay a USD32 exit fee in the airport. Berbera has an international airport that has flights to Dubai.