Sustainable Tourism in Socotra: 5 Things You Need To Consider As Responsible Travellers

Sustainable tourism in Socotra is not only important, it’s essential. Socotra is possibly one of the most beautiful places on planet earth. Its scenery is like no other, it’s marine life abundant, and the curious dragon blood trees don’t look like they are of this earth. To keep this beautiful island as pristine as it is, we, the tourists, have a responsibility to uphold!

Table of Contents

Introduction

In recent years, Socotra has become the destination on everybody’s lips. It’s the place all the rugged travellers want to say they’ve been, and all the aspiring travellers only dream of. Unfortunately, in recent months, the sustainable tourism in Socotra has been called into question. Having visited, we can say: not without good reason. In terms of responsible travel, there is serious work to be done here.

Information online about Socotra tends to focus, in our opinion, on the negative. Socotra is, of course, part of a developing country and as such, bringing tourism there is an extremely complex business. But I believe wholeheartedly that when done responsibly, tourism can be a force for good.

In order to visit Socotra in a responsible way, we need to first understand the potential issues facing it, and then learn how we can avoid exacerbating them, to allow the local people space to handle them how they see best.

A yellow tent on a traditional Arabic prayer mat. It is on a coral beach and there are other blue tents behind it and mountains in the distance.
Camping in Socotra

What’s the problem with tourism in Socotra?

Socotra has been pitched as the perfect destination for sustainable travel and especially ‘eco tourism’, but actually there’s very little evidence to support this. Companies have been pulling the ‘eco-card’ because it’s a destination not yet full of large corporate chain hotels, but there are still some serious issues that hold it back from being an eco-destination in any way.

That’s not to say it couldn’t become one in future. Back-to-basics camping is certainly a great way to start and this is definitely the most popular way to visit Socotra. However, it’s absolutely not there yet.

OK so first, let’s address the issues at hand. We can’t deny that there are some major problems starting to rear their head on this island.

A huge pile of washing machines in front of a brick wall. They are sitting on a pile of other rubbish.
Littering is a real issue in Hadiboh

What are the issues with sustainable tourism in Socotra?

Littering

This is a massive, massive problem. As a developing country, Socotra has little to no infrastructure for waste disposal. There is basically no waste management system whatsoever, so all of the litter is quite simply dumped in the streets of Hadiboh or out in nature on the rest of the island. Naturally, this is deeply problematic, but I will say that it doesn’t seem to be a “tourist only” issue.

From our discussions with locals, we’d say that many of them do not yet seem to see the implications of this long-term and a large portion of the littering seems to come from locals themselves. Many of them even told us they didn’t think it was a problem because the goats ate a lot of it! This is true (as disgusting as that sounds), however the goats mostly ate the cardboard, which still leaves a lot of plastic and other waste. That’s not at all to say it’s the fault of the local people – it’s not. Most of the litter comes from packaging of imported goods (and this is largely for the benefit of tourists).

Therefore, this is a problem sadly that tourists exacerbate, and we need to be extremely mindful of that.

A traditional Socotri home with a patterned floor in traditional Arabic style. There are two floor level couches on either side and a mat in the middle set up with a spread of food.
A meal with a local family in Socotra

Clashes of culture

Socotra is a part of Yemen, which is, ultimately, a Muslim country and the predominant religion in Socotra is Islam. Most people in Socotra are quite religious and in reality, most tourists are not. A mix of cultures definitely doesn’t need to be a bad thing, however many tourists do come to Socotra with very little understanding of the need to respect cultural differences. We firmly believe this is to do with the way Socotra has so far been advertised to visitors. There is nowhere near enough emphasis on religion from the advertising we have seen.

What this means is that many tourists do not dress appropriately while they are in destination. We saw ourselves that guides were keen to please the tourists and so they would often allow them to dress inappropriately. The excuse was regularly: ‘well, it’s OK because there aren’t many locals here.’ but at the same time, there would be the odd villager around, and plenty of local children. As tourists, it is imperative that we respect local culture, and this is something which lies within our control.

Dressing inappropriately may be OK for some locals who are used to tourists. However, you can make others feel very uncomfortable. This is not fair when we are in their home.

A close up of a pufferfish skeleton.
Pufferfish skeletons in Ras Erissel

Lack of conservation education

Perhaps one of the biggest problems in Socotra is a lack of information about conservation. Local people do not yet have the information or resources readily available to them to protect their very fragile eco-systems. An example of this is the dragon blood trees of Firnhin forest. Currently, there are only around 20 baby dragon blood trees left in Socotra because goats eat most of the trees and those they don’t eat are knocked down by cyclone winds. This isn’t much to do with tourists, but it’s a huge problem regardless.

A second conservation concern surrounds Socotra’s marine life, which can be found in their many reefs, and this IS a problem tourists can contribute to. A common example: Socotra’s ‘caveman’, Abdullah (a.k.a. Alleia) is one of the most interesting people on the island and certain its most famous. Alleia grew up in a cave near a lagoon and has made a living showing his childhood home to tourists. In doing so, he often shows off his favourite sea creatures, one of which is its many pufferfish.

It’s a common trick of Alleia’s to hold up the fish, so they inflate and entertain tourists. Alleia is a wonderful man, who has no doubt grown up doing this and probably does not know it is damaging to the fish, but it’s a real problem when tourists start to imitate this behaviour. When large groups of tourists start to pick up the fish, who cannot inhale much air before injuring themselves, they begin to damage the already fragile ecosystem of rare endemic marine life.

A whaleshark bone in the middle of the beach. There is a car on the beach and a mountain in the background. It is sunset.
Beaches are abundant on Socotra!

Contamination of the natural environment

Socotra is a small island and it doesn’t have many natural resources. They don’t grow much, which means they don’t have things like soap or shampoo and a lot of this is imported from the UAE or mainland Yemen. There is no doubt that this is mostly for tourists. When tourists then come in large numbers and bring with them their toiletries and chemical-laden cosmetics, the problem intensifies. Sunscreen, for example, contaminates waterways, as does bug spray, chemical soap and other cosmetics.

Drains from showers in Socotra lead directly to the sea, lakes and other natural waterways. Basically, what this means is, so does anything you wash off your body.

Shortage of local tour providers

One of the driving principles behind responsible travel is: to act with local economies in mind. Socotra is becoming popular, so of course many large international tour companies are starting to hop on the bandwagon. Everyone wants a slice of the pie! Many companies in Socotra do hire local guides, however some do not, and if more companies start to crop up, which use foreign guides, this takes money away from the local people and therefore the local economy.

If the money doesn’t stay within the country, the local people will not have the resources to improve issues like waste disposal, and the cycle continues.

A goat under a blue metal door sitting on a step. There are some wooden pallets leaning up against the wall next to him.
Socotra’s capital city, Hadiboh

Misinformation from Social Media

The above issues are unfortunately still not common knowledge. Socotra is a destination which has gained fame in the last few years from Social Media. This naturally does not give the whole picture. When large influencers visit beautiful destinations, their aim is generally to make it look as beautiful as possible and convince other people to visit, helping the brands who pay them (such as tour companies). This often means that they don’t disclose issues (like those above) because they only want to paint the destinations in a positive light so they make sales for the brand.

Not showcasing the reality is dangerous. If we overwhelm small underdeveloped places that cannot handle large influxes of tourism, we will damage the local environment and disadvantage the locals. Of course we don’t mean to do this! Many tourists would act differently if they had any idea. Like we said above, tourism done right can be a force for good. It is more important than ever that when we visit these places, we go armed with the knowledge to do better.

A white sand beach with a very blue sea. There are black sandstone mountains in the background.
Despite everything, Socotra is one of the most beautiful destinations we’ve ever visited

So what can we do to help Socotra?

Educating ourselves on these issues is step one. Once we know better, we do better. Here are some things we can do if we choose to visit the island ourselves.

1. Dress Conservatively

Take clothes which conform to the dress standards of Muslim cultures. Make sure you wear them, even if you see other tourists doing otherwise. It can be tempting to relax your dress standards when you see others behaving differently but remember: you are doing the right thing. This means, cover your knees and shoulders, and don’t expose your midriff or chest. This is especially important for women travellers.

For bathing, it is a little different, since mainly you will be alone in areas where you can bathe (such as Homhil infinity pool, Detwah lagoon etc). If you want to be especially cautious, you can buy conservative bathing costumes, but we didn’t not find we encountered many locals in these areas (except our guides who were all very used to tourists).

Also, it can feel difficult, but if you see other tourists not respecting the dress standards, call them out! You don’t need to be rude to do this, but a gentle reminder that they should cover up their shoulders and knees can be a great nudge for people to do the right thing.

A bottle tree with pink flowers in the foreground and a dragon blood tree in the background.
Bottle trees and a dragon tree in Socotra

2. Don’t touch wildlife

If you find yourself in a situation where a local is touching a wild animal for your entertainment, there is no need to be rude. Often, this is not done with prior knowledge or intent to cause harm. Sometimes, locals who do this are trying to entertain tourists, so acting disinterested is often the best antidote.

You may also find yourself in situations where you are asked if you’d like to touch chameleons, pufferfish or other wild animals. A simple ‘no, thank you’ is usually fine in these scenarios. If local people see that tourists have no interest in these kind of activities, then wild animals will not be exploited for tourist purposes. If you see other tourists taking part in this behaviour, ask them to stop or try to explain the problem to them if you are brave enough! Many times, bad behaviour is a result of lack of information, so spreading awareness is key.

In Zahek sand dunes, there are locals offering camel rides. We chose not to do this as we always choose to avoid riding animals when travelling. This is simply because we can’t be sure how they are treated, and is our personal preference.

A cow standing in front of a palm tree in Socotra.
Socotran Countryside

3. Take natural toiletries

Please, if you do one thing before visiting Socotra, revamp your washbag!

  • Take out any suncream that contains any of the harmful chemicals listed on Save The Reef. We currently use Amazinc and really like it. It’s zinc based, non-nano and no harmful chemicals. It also doesn’t leave the gross white smudgy marks that most natural sunscreens do.
  • Look carefully at every cosmetic you use and take out any that aren’t natural or chemical-free
  • If you need replacements for your other toiletries, start with brands like Ethique, which have proven track records of great natural products.
  • Skip the baby wipes. Currently, there is no way of making baby wipes fully compostable. Baby wipes with the label ‘biodegradable’ can only decompose in certain circumstances and still take many years to do so.
  • Consider your packaging really carefully and try to avoid anything containing single-use plastics

4. Reduce your plastic

Reduce single-use plastic on everything you take to or use on Socotra. Since there is no waste disposal system, it’s imperative that we try not to contribute to or exacerbate the problem of single-use plastic. Something which is especially problematic: plastic water bottles.

Actually, most tour companies will provide you will drinking water. It’s taken from natural sources or from treated taps in Hadiboh. If you’re worried about drinking this then we highly recommend taking a filtered water bottle, such as one from Lifestraw.

If you want to help with the waste on Socotra, you can also try to organise a beach clean up with the local guides! Unfortunately, this is a problem that local governments will need to solve in the end, but for now we can help where possible.

Two dragon blood trees in a clearing. There is a campfire burning.
Dragon Blood Forest of Firnhin

5. Pick a company that uses local guides

We can’t speak to any other companies, but we used Socotra Specialty tours and they used local guides. They were absolutely brilliant for our whole tour. They are co-owned by an American woman and a local man who work together, so they have the best of both worlds in our eyes (i.e. they really understand how to work with tourists and locals together).

On this note, many tour companies in Socotra pitch themselves as ‘eco tours’ but actually do nothing in the way of eco-tourism. In our opinion, this is just greenwashing, so it pays to be aware that this label doesn’t stand for too much on Socotra yet. We chose our company based on the links to local people to ensure the money went back to the local economy.

You can also find out more about Socotra on our YouTube.

Related posts: How to get to Socotra and 9 other top tips for visiting, 10 Beautiful Places You Need To Add To Your Socotra Island Trip, Socotra Myths Busted

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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