As the first African city to be named the World Capital of Culture and Tourism by the European Council on Tourism and Trade (ECTT) in April 2018, Djibouti City is increasingly on the radar of travellers. Djibouti’s win is not only due to its natural landscapes and marine ecosystems, but also to the concerted marketing efforts that have promoted it as a destination. The ECTT distinction is given to cities that have shown a commitment to the historic preservation of heritage sites and the development of cultural tourism. Standards and principles established by the ECTT in conjunction with the European Tourism Academy and UNESCO aim to encourage cities and states around the world to recognise and maintain sites of cultural and historical significance. A couple of months later, in June 2018, President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh was consecrated as a World Leader of Tourism by the European Tourism Academy for his commitment to Djibouti’s sustainable development through cultural preservation and environmental awareness. President Guelleh has maintained a balance of actively facilitating foreign investments and preserving the environment.
An often-cited reason for the country’s international accolades is its high concentration of potential UNESCO World Heritage sites. Of the 10 sites listed on UNESCO’s Tentative List – which recognises places that have the potential to reach World Heritage status – seven are naturally occurring: Lake Assal, which is a saline crater lake with the world’s largest salt reserves; the Moucha and Maskali Islands, which offer mangroves, multicoloured algae and coral reefs; the Obock region, characterised by mangroves, mountain ranges and small volcanic islands; Day Forest National Park, which is home to fauna endemic to Djibouti; Assamo, which is a protected arid and mountainous area; Djaelo, a protected natural area where a number of endangered species live; and Lake Abbe, a salt lake that straddles the border with Ethiopia. The 23,700-sq-km country offers visitors the opportunity to explore virtually untouched environmental sites across a variety of landscapes, from mountain ranges and desert valleys, to crystal blue waters.
Djibouti is also working to expand its cultural offering. For example, construction work on the country’s first national library commenced in April 2017. In addition, plans are now under way for the first national museum, which will be built on the site of the former Central Station.
“Once funds are mobilised for this rehabilitation, the museum will offer a window for visitors to discover the cultural and natural heritage of Djibouti,” Karalyn Monteil, programme specialist for culture at the UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa, told OBG. “It will also offer a venue for locals and visitors alike to see the cultural and creative industries of Djibouti through performances and cultural events.” According to Monteil, Djibouti could expand its list of sites on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in the near future, as the government is compiling a portfolio for submission.
While much of the Horn of Africa has experienced unrest in recent years, Djibouti is known for its safety. This is partly tied to the significant foreign military presence in the country: Djibouti is home to US, French, Chinese, Japanese and Italian bases. In addition, in January 2017 Ali Hassan Bahdon, minister of defence, told local media that Djibouti and Saudi Arabia had signed a military agreement, which would involve the establishment of a Saudi military base.
This stability has been tested by the regional tensions surrounding the country in recent years. For instance, Djibouti has taken in thousands of refugees from Yemen and Somalia due to conflicts in those nations; however, this integration has been largely successful from a security standpoint. This stability, even when faced with an influx of refugees and migrants, has further boosted Djibouti’s global reputation as a crossroads where a mix of people, goods and cultures converge peacefully.