Djibouti, An Underrated Luxury Destination
by Robert La Bua
Notwithstanding the current lull in travel activity across the world, an intense growth in global tourism over the past decade has left virtually no corner of the planet undiscovered. Despite an increased familiarity with destinations from Ras ben Sakka to Cape Agulhas, travellers still find the allure of the African continent remains a special memory for those who have visited and a vivid fantasy for those who have not yet experienced this remarkable part of the world. As the inhabited continent least exploited by mass tourism, Africa holds surprises for intrepid travellers willing―eager―to venture beyond the relatively few countries where tourism has grown into a major factor in their national economies. Especially in light of recent developments in global travel, destinations receiving few visitors are more appealing than ever for travellers seeking excitement and stimulation together with the increased safety and health precautions expected now and in the future.
And so we come to Djibouti, a country where tourism is virtually nonexistent. How often in the world today do we see a nation barely touched by the influences of tourism? No postcard racks, no touts hawking daytours, and, most appealingly, no hordes of visitors gawking obliviously as they toddle down the street dripping ice cream on their T-shirts. The fact that a tourism infrastructure is refreshingly absent does not mean there is nothing to see or do, however. On the contrary, Djibouti is an amazing place with some of Africa’s most unusual attractions and most rewarding leisure activities.
A small country easily missed on the map, The Republic Of Djibouti is overwhelmed in size by its three large neighbors, those being Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Its location is also its economic salvation; in addition to serving as the seaport for the entire economy of a landlocked Ethiopia, Djibouti’s position at the meeting of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean is of high strategic value to a number of world powers, resulting in a large foreign military presence that by its mere presence brings stability and calm to the country. Djibouti is, therefore, a very safe place to visit; after all, who would bother a country having no natural resources and many powerful friends? With a substantial expatriate population complementing the colorful local culture, Djibouti is an unexpectedly cosmopolitan destination; don’t be surprised if your private tour guide is a chic African woman dressed in local attire who reveals her Swedish nationality only after a long discussion in perfect English about environmentalism, world politics, and the work of aid organisations in the country.
The Red Sea coast is the main attraction for the few visitors who do venture to Djibouti. Long recognised among divers in the know as one of the globe’s best places to pursue their pleasure―thanks to clear waters permitting exceptional depth of view of the coral reefs and the colorful fish inhabiting them―Djibouti is most famous among the diving élite for its whale sharks, the world’s largest fish and one whose intimidating name belies its gentle disposition as well as its diet, which consists mostly of plankton and fish larvae. From November to January, whale sharks congregate very close to the Djiboutian coast, adding further appeal to the underwater world where abundant marine life is on show throughout the year. Though snorkelling is rewarding enough, the best underwater sights lie at slightly lower depths. Experienced divers will be in their nirvana; for diving neophytes, Djibouti’s Moucha Islands are a great place to be ‘baptised’, as the jovial dive instructors say. Private lessons and excursions are easily arranged.
A water attraction of a different sort is Lac Assal, the lowest point on the African continent and one of the saltiest bodies of water on Earth (yes, saltier than the more famous Dead Sea). After driving two hours across stark landscapes from Djibouti’s capital, also named Djibouti, Lac Assal is a startlingly beautiful sight. Ringed by a salt crust the envy of any margarita glass, the brilliant whiteness glints in the bright sunshine and enhances the color of the water, rich in minerals that leave the skin soft and smooth after a swim sharing the enormous body of water with likely no one else. Due to its extreme salinity, nothing lives in the water except the hope for epidermal rejuvenation in the minds of those who venture into it. Close to the lake is a series of curious geological phenomena: a rivulet where waters of vastly different temperatures (emanating from different sources) run side by side; fumaroles emitting smoke to remind visitors that the Earth’s crust is a mere 3km in depth in this area of volcanic activity, as opposed to the usual 15km; and the meeting of the three tectonic plates where the legendary Rift Valley enters the African continent―an austere but powerful sight.
Just outside the capital is the Refuge Décan, a place where native animals formerly held in European zoos are repatriated to Djibouti to live out their days on an expansive property. Local animals found injured are brought here, too, for their recovery before being re-released into the wild. Though the public is welcome to visit, Refuge Décan’s main objectives are to serve the animals and to educate school groups and government departments such as Customs about the perils of wildlife trafficking. Visitors can walk within the zebra, oryx, and ostrich enclosures and can nearly do the same at the leopard enclosures. Best not to climb into the scorpion display, though.
Arrangements for excursions to Moucha Islands, Lac Assal, Réfuge Décan, and anywhere else in Djibouti can be made through Djibouti Palace Kempinski, the only five-star hotel in the country. The quietly busy lobby of the Kempinski is a United Nations of nationalities, with French economic consultants, Japanese generals, African diplomats, German aid workers, American oilmen, and Gulf royalty adding to the complement of local government officials who use Kempinski’s stylish public spaces as their living room and its large ballroom as a venue for high-level meetings and events. Djibouti Palace Kempinski maintains the same high standard of excellence found in all Kempinski properties throughout the world; the hotel offers large suites for short- or long-term stays, an array of fine restaurants, a beautiful spa and wellness center, and, most importantly, exceptional service―all in a splendid, seaside location. Kempinski guests can have confidence in knowing the logistics of their visit will always be managed well; the hotel looks after every aspect of a stay from the moment of arrival to the moment of departure. An expedited VIP arrival service means Kempinski has a handler on the ground waiting at the airport as an escort through Immigration procedures. On departure, Kempinski maintains a private lounge at the airport for the exclusive use of its guests as part of its airport transfer service. Kempinski’s private dock means guests can depart from and return to the hotel by boat for exceptional nautical adventures enjoyed in total discretion.
decandjibouti.org (in French)