Tiny African nation of Djibouti banks on Chinese tourists

Luxury hotel and airport planned for isolated Ras Siyyan peninsula

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 April, 2017, 11:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 May, 2017, 2:35pm

Ahmed Mohamed Ali, the deputy chief of Ras Siyyan in Djibouti, first met investors from China almost a year ago.

The eight investors, accompanied by Djibouti’s ambassador to Beijing and a Chinese official, spent roughly half an hour on the long white beach of Ras Siyyan, a peninsula on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and had since returned three times, most recently in early January.

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Ali said their initial investment plan would see a luxury hotel built on the secluded beach, where visitors would be able to enjoy stunning sea views and year-round sunshine. A new tourist airport, also funded by the Chinese investors, would be built on another part of the peninsula.

Djibouti, some 7,800km from Beijing, is the smallest nation in the Horn of Africa. Plagued by poverty and high unemployment, it is now eying investment from China to boost its tourism industry, with Chinese tourists a major targets.

Osman Abdi Mohamed, the managing director of Djibouti’s National Tourism Office, said the new tourism facilities were expected to lead to a boom in foreign tourist arrivals.Fewer than 80,000 – mostly family and friends of foreign soldiers based in the country – visit Djibouti each year at present but Mohamed said it was hoped that visitor numbers would rise to more than 500,000 a year by 2030, with half of them coming from Asia.

Djibouti, with a population of only 900,000, has many reasons for wanting to develop its tourism industry, which now accounts for just 3 per cent of its gross domestic product. Job creation is a key one, with the International Monetary Fund putting the country’s unemployment rate at 39 per cent.

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“There are 3,000 people who work in this sector, including the informal sector, namely in the crafts,” Mohamed said. “With all these investments that have been programmed, we hope in the next four years to create at least 2,923 new jobs.”

Most of the investment will be coming from China, already the biggest investor in Djibouti. Neither government has revealed the exact figures, but the impact of Chinese investment is clear to see.

Projects include a multibillion-yuan, multipurpose port scheduled to be finished this month, a modern railway linking Djibouti City with the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa that began operation in January, and a road linking Djibouti City with Lake Assal, a salt lake that is a centrepiece of the government’s tourism plan. The lakeshore, 155 metres below sea level, is the lowest land in Africa.

The tap water in Djibouti is salty and China is also funding and building a cross-border water pipeline from Ethiopia to provide fresh water for Djiboutians and foreign tourists.

Among the other attractions Djibouti hopes will lure tourists are the world’s biggest fish, whale sharks, which gather in the Gulf of Tadjoura to breed between November and January, making Djibouti’s coastal waters one of the best spots to seen them, and Lake Abbe, a salt lake on a desert plateau on the border with Ethiopia, four hours’ drive from Djibouti City, which is surrounded by a unique landscape of jagged limestone chimneys.

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Mohamed said that as China was building its first overseas military base in Djibouti, to supply navy vessels conducting anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, the country would become better known to Chinese tourists.

“The Chinese military presence will serve as a relay to promote tourism, and we believe that it will pay off,” he said. “During their time here, military personnel can better discover the country, and then it will spread by word of mouth.

“I am convinced that the Chinese military will contribute to convey a positive image to their compatriots.”

New tourism projects are already in the pipeline. Mohamed said Shanghai-based private investment company Touchroad was investing in the luxury hotel in Ras Siyyan, while Boston Partners, an Ethiopian investment firm, was building a recreation centre on Moucha Island, a coral island at the centre of the Gulf of Tadjoura that is a popular diving site.

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Chinese investments overseas have often been criticised for harming the local environment, but Ali said the new projects would “preserve the environment, sea and fish diversity”.

“If the sea was polluted, it would be no good for the tourists and the investment and no good for us too,” he said.