Ideally situated along the Red Sea at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe, Djibouti benefits from its reputation as a stable country in the Horn of Africa. With the launch of new promotional campaigns and its popular “Djibeauty” slogan, the country has continued to garner positive attention from international media outlets in recent years. For instance, Djibouti ranked fourth in travel guide publisher Lonely Planet’s “Top-10 Countries to Visit in 2018”. Efforts are now under way to translate this growing awareness into higher arrival numbers and increased investment.
As outlined in the Djibouti Vision 2035 strategy, the government’s national development policy launched in 2014, economic diversification beyond trade will rely heavily on the country’s ability to sustainably develop its tourism offerings. While the administration of President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh has had some success in boosting investment in infrastructure, which is key to facilitating tourism, the country still has a long way to go in terms of improving international connectivity and domestic accessibility for it to become a top tourist destination.
In April 2018 Djibouti City became the first African metropolis to be named the World Capital of Culture and Tourism by the European Council on Tourism and Trade, which brought the country into the spotlight of international media attention as a destination for tourism. This followed the European Academy of Tourism in March 2018 naming President Guelleh a World Leader of Tourism, a title awarded to leaders who have demonstrated a commitment to engendering tourism at the heart of national policies and recognising the meaningful growth that accompanies cultural development.
These accolades indicate that the country is moving towards harnessing its assets. In 2014 the World Bank contended that only 10% of Djibouti’s tourism potential was exploited. Since this time, however, the government has been active in establishing a development framework that situates tourism as a key pillar of future growth. Under Djibouti Vision 2035, the authorities intend to attract 500,000 foreign visitors annually by 2030 and generate 30,000 jobs. By comparison, international arrivals for 2017 amounted to 132,829, according to the National Tourism Office of Djibouti (Office National du Tourisme de Djibouti, ONTD). A government report released in 2015 estimated that the sector supported 4500 jobs, with less than 2000 of these in the formal sector. Together, the government hopes these targets will boost tourism’s contribution to GDP from 1.5% in 2017 to 3% by 2020.
Djibouti has been courting investment and working to advertise its unique tourism offerings to foreign tour companies. In May 2018 the ONTD organised an “EducTour” of Djibouti for four major French tour operators to showcase Djiboutian sites and encourage them to include Djibouti among their products. In particular, Djibouti offers pristine and largely untouched underwater ecosystems. To this end, the ONTD also signed an agreement with the French Federation of Underwater Sports and Studies in 2016 for the development of deepsea diving in Djibouti and the promotion of its reefs to French divers.
The ONTD has also been collaborating with Ethiopian tour operators and officials. In December 2017 Djiboutian and Ethiopian officials launched a business-to-business forum intended to integrate the two tourism markets. While this has helped to open up the Ethiopian market, costs in Djibouti remain an obstacle. There are therefore efforts to draw Ethiopians to the country for leisure purposes via rail. Marketed as “Ethiopia’s beach”, since Ethiopia is landlocked, Djibouti has increasingly sought to tap its neighbouring market. The new rail line running from Addis Ababa to Djibouti City, which opened in January 2018, could help facilitate higher tourist inflows from Ethiopia.
In terms of domestic tourism, in January 2017 the government introduced a two-day weekend – Friday and Saturday – for public sector workers, providing many Djiboutians with more time to explore their own country. Nevertheless, there are still significant constraints for Djiboutians and international tourists alike. For instance, many sites are only accessible via off-road vehicles and costs remain prohibitive.
Although Djibouti has long been a coveted destination for those interested in adventure tourism, the wider international tourism community has only recently become aware of the country’s significant market potential. The international recognition that Djibouti has gained in recent years stems from the country’s unique natural landscapes and immaculate seascapes. Indeed, the nation has a high concentration of potential UNESCO World Heritage sites. Djibouti has 10 sites listed on UNESCO’s Tentative List, which recognises places with “outstanding universal value” and the potential to ascend to World Heritage status in the near future.
“Djibouti has just started preparing their first feasibility study,” Karalyn Monteil, programme specialist for culture at the UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa, told OBG. “As Djibouti moves forwards with proposing World Heritage sites, the country will continue to draw in international recognition and support for conservation measures,” she added.
The government’s approach to the future of tourism is rooted in a sustainable vision. Sustainability has been incorporated into one of Djibouti’s unique offerings: the chance to swim with whale sharks. In a bid to promote this niche segment while also preserving national waters, the Whale Shark Festival was launched in December 2015 by the ONTD, the Ministry of Environment, and a number of public and private tourism players, including hotels, tour operators and travel agencies. The marine festival is held in the Gulf of Tadjoura, as whale sharks migrate there from October to February, offering tourists the opportunity to swim with the sharks under protective conditions.
Other notable policies have included the government naming tourism as a priority sector eligible for advantageous financing from the state-owned Economic Development Fund of Djibouti (Fonds de Développement Economique de Djibouti, FDED) in order to encourage private players to develop the sustainable segment. Existing hotel operators can apply for financing from the FDED to implement environmentally sustainable solutions. The FDED offers businesses loans of DJF3.5m-50m ($19,700-280,000), with interest rates of 6% or lower, depending on the project. Additionally, financial support in the form of low-interest start-up capital – with loans of DJF3.5m-7m ($19,700-39,400) – is available to graduates that are seeking to launch their own environmentally friendly tourism businesses.
More recently, in December 2017 the Ministry of Housing, Urbanism, Environment and Spatial Planning (Ministère de l’Habitat, de l’Urbanisme, de l’ Environnement et de l’Aménagement du Territoire, MHUEAT), which is responsible for implementing environmental policy, attended two international conferences in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and Zanzibar, Tanzania, in order to better understand and learn how to respond to climate change-related shifts in the marine environment. Most notably, the MHUEAT is working with the UN Environmental Programme to rehabilitate degrading ecosystems, particularly coastal areas vulnerable to climate change, and strengthen the resilience of these communities. The plan aims to reduce the harvest of natural resources and train local communities so that their livelihoods are more eco-friendly, focusing on sustainable fisheries, agriculture and tourism, particularly in mangrove areas. The project has received funding from the Global Environment Facility under the Least Developed Countries Fund and other partners.
“Ecotourism in Djibouti should be aimed at improving the well-being of local populations as well as the long-term preservation of the environment,” Houmed Ali, owner of Agence Safar, a local tour operator, told OBG. “To achieve this, it will be essential to set up other forms of tourism that have the least possible environmental, social and economic impacts, aligning with sustainable goals and ensuring the inclusion of the local population.”
Although Djibouti is rich in natural beauty, the vast majority of visitors to the country do not travel for leisure purposes. In 2016 the ONTD estimated that 98% of visitors came for the purpose of doing business. As outlined in Djibouti Vision 2035, the government aims to boost leisure tourism so that it accounts for 88% of visitors by 2030. Business tourists often come to Djibouti for the maintenance and operation of foreign military bases, and rarely leave the capital city to explore is natural sites. Promoting secondary destinations in Djibouti could help to distribute the positive effects of tourism.
In particular, there has been an influx of business travellers from China, due to the numerous infrastructure investments led by Chinese interests. As part of the government’s stated goal of attracting 500,000 tourists annually by 2030, around half of these arrivals are expected to come from Asia.
Despite the relative power of business travel, the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions industry remains largely underdeveloped, though there has been more activity in the segment in recent years. In May 2018 Djibouti held its National Conference on Tourism, which had not taken place since 2014. The event focused on sustainable tourism, and held various workshops for industry stakeholders on topics such as financing and personnel training. In addition, the second Annual International Trade Fair of Djibouti, organised by the Djibouti Chamber of Commerce (Chambre de Commerce de Djibouti, CCD), is set to take place in December 2018. The event aims to attract international investors as well as publicise opportunities for investment. At the inaugural event in 2017 around 200 companies had exhibitions – including 55 foreign businesses from 20 countries – and 11,200 visitors attended the fair. The CCD has said it expects there to be more than 250 business exhibitions in 2018.
Aside from the high costs for accommodation, accessibility is perhaps the most pressing issue facing the country’s tourism sector. Most tourism infrastructure has been built in Djibouti City, but the sites that have the greatest pull for tourists are concentrated in the interior regions. While the government has expanded the national road network from 700 km to 1100 km since 2010, many of the main touristic sites are only accessible by off-roading vehicles. “The more it is developed, the more accessible sites become, making trips easier. However, as they are developed, these sites may lose some of their appeal for certain types of tourists,” Ken Gradall, director-general of Rushing Water Adventures, a local business that offers a variety of guided snorkelling and kayaking trips, told OBG. “Part of the appeal of these places is that they are off the beaten path. Djibouti needs to consider its marketing strategy, and whether we want to appeal to the adventurers or to mass groups.”
In terms of aviation, Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport is currently the country’s only international airport. While the government is in the process of courting new airlines and routes, the only direct flights to Djibouti outside of Africa are from the UAE, Turkey and France. The lack of international connections to Djibouti therefore remains a challenge to the short-term development of the sector.
However, the authorities have helped to improve access by easing visa procedures. An e-visa platform was first introduced in February 2018 and officially replaced the visa-on-arrival system in May. E-visas are now available for international travellers wishing to visit Djibouti for tourism or commercial purposes, and can be accessed 72 hours after the application has been submitted online. The e-visa platform was developed in tandem with the International Organisation for Migration and financed under the Better Migration Management Programme of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the EU. In addition to simplifying entry for travellers, e-visas also improve the security surrounding visa processing.
Following e-visa implementation, the European Journal of Tourism ranked Djibouti as the second-most accessible African nation in terms of visa openness. The full consequences of this procedural change will be seen once the Djiboutian tourist season begins in earnest in November 2018.
Djibouti has seen a marked influx of foreign direct investment in infrastructure development in recent years, but the timetables for many of these projects have been extended beyond initial plans. Notably, two international airports are under construction: Hassan Gouled Aptidon International Airport in Ali Sabieh, 25 km south-east of Djibouti City, which will be able to handle 1.5m passengers annually; and Ahmed Dini Ahmed International Airport, in the north of the country, on the Seven Brothers archipelago, which will have annual capacity for 767,000 passengers once both stages of the project are complete. While the former was expected to open in 2018 and the first stage of the latter airport was set to open in 2016, both projects are still in the construction phase. Their completion dates have been revised multiple times, with both now set to begin operating in late 2019, though many expect that both projections will be pushed back further still. The projects were initially granted to the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation in January 2015 and slated to cost $599m, financed through Chinese investment. In late 2017 media reported that these contracts were to be re-tendered, but no further developments have been made public.
Foreign-backed hotels and resorts have similarly faced delays. The 220-room Ayla Djibouti Resort, developed by Emirati hotel group Ayla Hotels and Resorts, was originally planned to open in mid-2017, but as of August 2018 it was expected to open in the second half of 2019. Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s Boston Partners was slated to open their 54-room Kuriftu Resorts on Moucha Island in 2018, though this is reportedly also likely to be pushed back due to setbacks in the commissioning phase. Once these developments are completed, however, they will significantly boost the supply of accommodation. As of December 2017 there were 32 hotels in Djibouti, with a combined room capacity of approximately 1200 rooms and just over 1800 beds.
Similarly, in December 2014 a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Djiboutian government and Shanghai-based private investment company Touchroad International Holdings Group to build a luxury resort on the islands of Ras Siyan and the Seven Brothers archipelago. The agreement also included investment for infrastructure development at the shipyard of Obock, as well as a number of shopping centres, hospitals and port facilities. However, these plans have yet to come to fruition.
Training & Human Resources
As facilities expand, Djibouti’s hospitality and tourism industry is facing a shortage of skilled labour available to work in the sector. The ONTD and the Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (Ministère de l’ Education Nationale et de la Formation Professionnelle, MENFP) have sought to address this by establishing the Arta Hotel Industry and Tourism Trades Training Centre (Centre Sectoriel de Formation aux Métiers de l’Hôtellerie et du Tourisme d’Arta, CSFMHT), which opened in January 2018. Before this, the only training establishment for the tourism and hotel sector was Arta’s Hospitality and Catering High School. The CSFMHT includes hotel accommodation, conference facilities and a restaurant, providing students with on-the-job training in a range of industry segments. The CSFMHT has multiple missions, such as helping to mitigate youth unemployment through technical training, as well as providing retraining and competence updates for staff already working in the sector.
The centre is funded by a broader $1.5m grant provided by the Enhanced Integrated Framework, a partnership of 51 countries, 24 donors and eight partner agencies that work with governments to assist least developed countries. The agreement – which was signed in April 2017 and covers the years to 2020 – is aimed at improving employment and income opportunities in the tourism sector, with a view to reducing poverty. While these measures are a good start to equipping the tourism sector with skilled labour, more still need to be done to meet growing demand, especially with the new hotels that are planned to be completed over the medium term.
The development of Djibouti’s tourism sector remains a priority for the national government as it works to diversify its economy beyond the import-export sector. The tourism goals outlined in Djibouti Vision 2035 strategy are ambitious, but government policy is dedicated to facilitating the arrival of international leisure tourists. For now, delayed timelines for some of the foreign-funded infrastructure projects, alongside persistent accessibility issues at the domestic and international level, are curbing short-term growth. However, the sustainable ecotourism segment will be beneficial for the sector’s longer-term growth, as will the ongoing improvements to the provision of industry training.
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