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By Nick Welman

First Impressions

My first encounter with the African mini-state of Djibouti dates back to 1988, when I sailed on a Sudanese freighter across the Red Sea. Throughout the voyage, the Sudanese crew had been playing wild stories about Djibouti, about it being a “free port” where anything that was “haram” would be permitted in nearby Muslim countries. We were barely moored in Djibouti when the bottles of whiskey and the trays of beer cans were already hoisted on board. The otherwise restrained Sudaneses had swiftly swapped their filthy overalls for tight, immaculate suits, and went into town to roam night clubs and brothels. Djibouti seemed like a Sodom and Gomorrah within the surrounding Muslim world.


Djibouti has two sides: the French and Africans live in separate worlds. The city of Djibouti is divided into an African quarter (low Djibouti) and a European quarter (high Djibouti), although the dividing line is starting to blur. The official street names (e.g. Rue de Paris, Rue de Marseille) are never used by the African inhabitants. Asking for directions on the street with a map in hand is therefore pointless. 

The country lives on port charges, transit taxes and not least of the French contributions for their military presence. Everything is imported: vegetables from Ethiopia, meat from Somalia, foodstuffs and household items from Saudi Arabia and Europe. Except for an almost negligible national livestock (goats and sheep), the desert land itself produces nothing. 

Most people will visit Djibouti as part of a longer trip through Africa or the Middle East. In itself the country nevertheless has potential: the rich underwater world, Lac Assal surrounded by lava fields and the cloud forest Foret du Day. The desert offers the tourist deserted lunar landscapes that seem out of this world. There is little question of sustainable tourist development. The gap between whites and locals is also clearly visible: Africans continuously address Westerners as “chef”. Of course, that does not exactly help the country’s progress. 

Photography and video, which are officially permitted, sometimes cause serious problems for the visitor. Both the population and the police can hold you accountable. Holding a photo shoot in Djibouti is a pagan undertaking and sometimes leads to unpleasant discussions. The Somali population in particular is opposed to photography. Out of a strong sense of privacy, there is an aversion to his or her image ever being made public, published, or otherwise reproduced in any way. (In the former Somalia, there was a general ban on photography, also for the population itself; only persons with a permit were allowed to take pictures.) For this problem, the only ‘sustainable’ solution is to always ask permission and accept it when they decline the offer, and if you really cannot go without taking photos, then simply do not go to Djibouti.

Interesting links about Djibouti:

There is little information for tourists available on Djibouti. There is however a Lonely Planet article of Etheopia, Eritrea and Djibouti.

Trip Advisor
Inspiration for activities in Djibouti

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