Somaliland (Somali: Soomaaliland, Arabic: صوماللاند Ṣūmāliland) is an autonomous region in northwestern Somalia that functions as a de facto country. Although the government is working to establish full safety there, visiting is still not advised by the governments of Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US. However, it is seen as much safer than its counterparts: Somalia and Puntland.
The local Somaliland authorities declared the region's independence from the rest of Somalia in May 1991, but neither the Somali federal government nor any other country or international organization has recognized its sovereignty.
The area is viewed as much safer than most of its neighbouring East African countries. The local government is very anxious to show its stability and, as a result, foreigners are generally treated with respect and interest. High unemployment and increasing discontent at being an unrecognized area of stability in a grim region does cause some resentment, yet very little and nothing too serious to worry about. For visitors exercising caution and respect, Somaliland is a fascinating and quite safe place to visit.
Initially a British protectorate, Somaliland gained its independence in 1960 and entered voluntarily into a union with the former Italian Somaliland five days later. Before long, struggles erupted, but the country remained lashed together under the dictator Mohammad Siad Barre until a vicious civil war broke out in 1988. During the civil war, tens of thousand of Somalilanders were killed by the Siad Barre regime due to their tribal affiliations. At conclusion of the war in 1991, Somaliland had been decimated and bombed to the ground. It is still recovering today: travellers will see shells of tanks along major roads, blast marks from artillery along hillsides, bombed-out buildings and ruins remaining in cities.
After 1991, Somaliland began the painstaking process of separation and reconstruction. By 2010, it had its own free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections, with the presidential elections notable in particular for unseating the incumbent in a very close race. A remarkably peaceful transition of power followed.
Somaliland is a peaceful region. Violence is rare, and there is an active police force to ensure that laws are respected and that people abide to them.
As with the remainder of the former Somalia, law comes from three sources: the government, Islam (Sharia law), and clan (Xeer law). Extended family is of paramount importance in Somaliland, and the country now largely survives on remittances from relatives working abroad. Because no countries recognize Somaliland as independent, there are few employment opportunities. Unemployment is estimated to be at a staggering 80%.
You need a Somaliland visa to enter--Somalia visas are not accepted. Most travellers get a visa in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia or the Somaliland Mission in London. You can get details from the Somaliland government website or contact the Somaliland liaison office in Addis Ababa, phone +251 11 6635921, though they rarely pick up.
To get to the office in Addis Ababa (opens at 9:30 am), you should find the Edna Mall, go north on Namibia Avenue for about 100 meters until you see the Sheger Building on your left. Turn to the right on a street that has sign for the liaison office and walk down this street for about 300-400 meters. When you see another sign on your right, turn and you will see the embassy. Note that it changes locations often, this is valid as of January 2016 (since the 2013 Lonely Planet, it has moved twice). The visa now costs $100 (more for multiple entry), and you will also need a photocopy of your passport (available at Sheger Building, the mall opposite to it and the little print shop in the shack on the corner of the first turn to the embassy for 1 birr) and one passport photo. You are issued a visa while you wait and given a letter telling you to not pay any more money at the airport in Hargeisa or at the border (they have pestered travelers for money before). However, as of Jan 2017 there was an entry tax at the airport so make sure to ask about that at the visa office.
The unofficial Somaliland embassy in London will also issue a visa. The whole process is refreshingly non-bureaucratic and can be handled by post, which makes London the most convenient place to get a visa for travellers who live in Europe and/or want to obtain a visa before travelling to the region.
From Djibouti City, Somaliland visas are available from the Representative Office on Ave Marechal (11°36'25"N 43°09'21"E, correct as of December 2017). You would need US$63 and a passport photo. The process takes one working day; it is not possible to obtain a visa on the same day.
You can also apply online for a visa through the Somaliland Mission in the USA for USD80.
There is an international airport in Hargeisa with flights to/from Dubai, Djibouti City, and many other cities and towns across the Horn of Africa and the Somaliland region. There is also an international airport at Berbera with many international flights, most notably to Dubai. Note that some flights from Hargeisa actually start with a bus ride to Berbera. If you are not Somali you may have difficulty getting through the police checkpoints unless you have written permission from the commander of police or take an armed guard (the Jubba flight from Hargeisa to Dubai is like this).
Ethopian airlines has direct flights from Addis Ababa to Hargeisa. Daallo Airlines is wildly inconsistent. Jubba Airways or African Express are good options, with several flights a week connecting Hargeisa to Djibouti, Dubai, Nairobi and Entebbe. Djibouti to Hargeisa is about an hour-long flight. Dubai to Berbera takes three hours.
All flights to and from Somaliland are expensive by most standards - there are no budget airlines. The cheapest flights will be to and from Djibouti, usually around US$125 one-way when taxes and fees are figured in (but not including the entry/exit/visa/exchange fees, which will tack on about another US$100 to any trip).
The most reliable way to travel to Somaliland appears to be with Ethiopian airlines as it is the safest and cleanest airline currently flying to Hargeisa and its flights are consistent, it flies to/from Addis Ababa daily, and soon a direct Nairobi route should hopefully begin. Tickets can be purchased in advance either online or at their ticketing offices in Addis or Hargeisa.
Also be aware that Jubba Airways usually waits until enough people have purchased tickets before departing. You may be waiting a week or more for a flight, regardless of whether you have a ticket or not.
It is very important to to re-confirm all flights 7 days in advance! All of the airlines above will not hesitate to sell your ticket to someone else if you don't take the warning seriously, Jubba in particular.
Ticket offices are closed on Friday (the weekend in the Islamic world). Plan accordingly.
Recently, East African Safari Air Express began regular service between Nairobi and Hargeisa, but it's very expensive (a return flight from Nairobi to Hargeisa costs USD600). They can be reached at [email protected] or +254 020 6654321. As of April 2011, their flights NBO-HGA-NBO operate on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
It is possible to enter Somaliland from Ethiopia by road. You can avoid paying many of the fees charged at the airport. However, if you plan to leave Somaliland by road, it is advisable to make Ethiopian Visa arrangements (multiple entry) before traveling to Somaliland as the process of getting an Ethiopian Visa in Hargeisa is likely not possible for foreigners anymore.
From Djibouti City, minibuses leave at around 3:30pm each day from Avenue 26 (11°35'06"N 43°08'59"E), connecting to a waiting 4WD at the Loyada border. The 4WDs wait at the border for travellers to have dinner, travel through the desert at night, stop for a few hours just north of Hargeisa, and enter the city after sunrise. It is advisable to reserve your seat in the morning of travel; the entire journey costs about US$40.
Despite government efforts, there are still some landmines. It is rare to see any, but look out for coloured rocks next to the road. If you see painted rocks, DO NOT leave the Tarmac as a safety precaution.
There is a bus service in Hargeisa, Burao, Berbera and Borama. There are also services between the major towns and adjacent villages operated by different types of vehicles such as 4 wheel drives and light goods vehicles (LGV).
To travel outside of major cities, the central government used to require foreigners to take an armed guard with them (see "Stay Safe" below). However, regulations have changed and now tourists do not require an armed guard to travel to Berbera and Laas Geel at least. In the east, an armed guard may still be required.
The capital, Hargeisa, has a provincial museum. There is also a menagerie that includes lions, leopards, antelopes, birds, and reptiles. In Hargeisa, there is also a downed Somali Air Force jet that has been turned into a monument in the center of the city. Money changers are a sight to be seen with their massive piles of cash for exchange. The livestock market just outside Hargeisa features many camels and sheep for sale. It’s possible for foreigners to visit the livestock market.
Outside of Hargeisa is Laas Gaal, a complex of caves and rock shelters that contain some of the earliest known art in the Somalia and the African continent, dating back to somewhere between 9,000 and 3,000 B.C.
In the north of Somaliland lies Berbera, a port town worthy of a visit. It maybe be possible to dive in Berbera through the Mansor Hotel, but best to call ahead of time and check if there is availability and they have staff to accommodate divers.
If you are into photography, then you would find that the natural landscapes and sunsets are quite beautiful. You might even see some wildlife if you're driving from one city to another. There is a beach in Berbera city, about 2 hours from Hargeisa. There is Mansoor Hotel right at the beach as well which provides rooms for about $60 a night. The beach is not usually crowded and you can enjoy the waters in peace. The locals are very conservative when they are swimming, so if you plan on showing a lot of skin you can choose an area that is a bit more remote to avoid any stares.
US Dollars are the preferred currency in Somaliland. As of June 2018, the rate was 1 USD = 10,000 Somaliland Shillings. This is the generally accepted rate at businesses, although money changers on the street will give a slightly worse rate because they receive a commission.
The largest bill in circulation is 5,000 Shillings, which can make carrying local money around unwieldy. It’s much easier to bring dollars into the country and use them for purchases. They are accepted, if not preferred, everywhere. Smaller bills would be handy for small purchases, as to not receive change for a larger bill in Shillings. Dollars can be spent directly at businesses without needing to exchange for Shillings first. It would be possible to exchange other currencies such as Euros as well in Somaliland, but the rate would likely not be as favorable and most businesses would likely not accept them directly. Make sure that dollars are in good condition, as ripped bills are less likely to be accepted. There are some ATMs in Hargeisa that accept foreign cards, but they charge exorbitant fees.
Most merchants in Somaliland use a cashless device called Zaad, which enables customers to send money to the merchant via text message. This would be extremely convenient as compared to using cash. However, using this service would require a local SIM card with a local phone number to set up your account. Obtaining a local SIM is extremely easy and cheap from either SomTel or TeleSom.
As of July 2018, the cost of a 1.5 liter bottle of water at any shop is 5,000 Shillings. A meal in a restaurant ranges from about $1 to $5, depending on the fare.
Hotel prices vary widely, but a cheap double room in Hargeisa could be had for $15, with nicer rooms being upwards of $30. Some hotels are more geared towards westerners, as they have an armed guard outside, and are more expensive. However, it is possible to stay at hotels without armed guards outside for cheaper.
Tipping is generally not required at restaurants.
For breakfast, Somalis eat a flat bread called laxoox and cereal or porridge made of millet or cornmeal. They also eat rice or noodles with sauce or meat for lunch. Pasta became very popular due to Italian influence in the region. Bananas are common in the south of the region. A traditional soup called maraq (also part of Yemen cuisine) is made of vegetables, meat and beans and is usually eaten with flat bread or pitta bread. Beans are usually eaten for dessert, also oat or corn patties and salad can be eaten too.
Though not commonly served, Somalis eat xalwo, a jelly-like sweet made with water, sugar, and honey, though peanuts are sometimes added. Somalis who have spent some time in the Middle East eat baklava. Dates are also popular in Somaliland.
Many Somalis adore spiced tea. Milk is also common in rural areas of Somaliland. Alcohol is prohibited and you will not find it publicly served anywhere in the country. With a building of a coca-cola plant, there is now easy access to soft drinks in nearly all markets and hotels.
There are hotels being constructed in all of Somaliland's major cities. Hargeisa has seen most development, with regards to its infrastructure and capacity, the airport has been expanded to cater to an increase in tourists, both foreign and domestic.
Even though there are no major international chains in Hargeisa, there are some good rooms in certain hotels. Before final booking, make sure you contact the hotel directly. Some of the less expensive hotels($10USD-$20USD) may have no food service and no hot water. While the more expensive ones ($40USD-$80USD) may have armed guards, airport pick-up and guided tours. The hotel we stayed at in Summer of 2019, also had available English speaking guides (for a fee) that would take you around to sites and interesting markets throughout the city.
Most, if not all, hotels do not take credit cards for booking. They will take a Paypal payment and also will hold at room at your request. Since the city has very few foreign guest, a reservation is usually not needed. But do plan out your trip and alert the hotel you are coming if you need airport pick-up.
Locals in Hargeisa drink tap water filtered and treated by the Chinese government. The cleanliness is not adequate for visitors though. If you are not a local, you MUST drink bottled water, as drinking tap water can cause digestive issues (diarrhea and/or vomiting) It is however very uncommon to find diseases such as cholera in the drinking water.
As with many developing-world countries, animals roam the streets and sanitation is poor. Be very aware of the very real risk of rabies. Bats may inhabit the countryside and their bites can be nearly invisible, leaving a person unaware until it's too late.
There is a low risk of malaria in Somaliland, but that threat is still present in rural areas. Many foreigners choose not to take anti-malarials.
Yellow fever is seen in the rural parts of Somaliland. If you plan to travel to other countries that require proof of yellow fever vaccination, be sure you are vaccinated!
Vaccination against other endemic diseases common in developing countries (typhoid, polio, hepatitis A & B, etc) is strongly recommended. however these diseases are not common.
The infrastructure of this region is still lacking in parts and that includes healthcare. If you have health problems or have concerns about getting treatment in an emergency, you will be putting yourself at great risk as the medical services are primitive and unsanitary by modern standards in most areas.
The most modernized (and written-about) hospital is the Edna Adan University Hospital in Hargeisa. It's mostly a maternity hospital and, although the staff is excellent, medical treatment is limited by the serious dearth of resources in the country. Serious conditions will require evacuation. Come prepared or do not come at all.
Somaliland is considerably safer compared to other parts of Somalia. Knowing a little of the local language or having an interpreter can go a long way when requesting information should you wish to learn about the surrounding area.
African Express, Jubba and Daallo airlines fly to Djibouti, Dubai and Jeddah, Kenya, Mogadishu, and Uganda. Ethiopian Airlines has twice daily flights to Addis Ababa. The main airport is Egal International Airport in Hargiesa (HGA). As of July 2018, there was no exit fee at the airport.