Can You Still Go To Socotra?
Updated June 2023, Can You Still Go To Socotra was originally written in July 2017
In short? Yes, but it’s not that easy…
Let me just start off by saying- I was privileged to visit a small bit of mainland Yemen and the otherworldly island of Socotra back in 2014 and again in 2019 and 2020.
I had been dying to go to Socotra by the time I made it there, as it had topped my list of places I wanted to visit for a decade at that point. I had asked the question ‘Can you still go to Socotra?‘ when I was researching my trip, turns out it was a possibility back then.
Want to learn more about the island and plan a trip? Grab a copy of the Socotra Guidebook by Bradt.
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So, What’s Going On In Yemen?
In short: A bloody war is being fought in mainland Yemen with so many belligerents it’ll make your head spin. It’s not the simple ‘good vs bad guys’ the media likes to portray in war.
Of course with the war being battled in mainland Yemen, Socotra had been nearly sealed off from the world until 2019.
I was first in Yemen and in Socotra in January & February of 2014, shortly before the real tip-off of the fiasco that still currently rages on in this forgotten corner of Arabia. Yemen has had problems going back prior to the 2014 Houthi overthrow of the central government.
The country was divided into the Democratic People’s Republic of Yemen and the Yemen Arab Republic in the 1960s. The ’90s saw the unification of the two countries as one.
Many say the war raging on now began in 2004. Others will say the huge tremors began in 2011 with Yemen’s followed suit of the Arab Spring.
Early 2014 was a great window of opportunity for intrepid travelers such as myself. I went, it was amazing, it was great and the entire trip went off with no hitch. It was pure perfection. My only regret was not having stayed longer.
So with the questions I get regarding Socotra, I wanted to clarify a few things about what’s happening in Socotra now.
Yes, You Can Get To Socotra Once Again
In late 2018 Yemenia began a flight from Cairo to Socotra via a short stop in Seiyun (in mainland Yemen). The flight has been pretty reliable, albeit almost always being late. There has only been one major hiccup I’m aware of, in October 2019 where all foreigners were barred from boarding the weekly flight.
As of March 2020, Yemeni tourist visas are not being issued, and regular flights to the island have yet to return due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Beware Of The UAE-Based Companies Offering Tours
99.9% of the time they’re either a scam, there have been several in the last few years, especially before the return of the weekly flight. These guys make claims saying they’ll line up tours and flights and they almost always never work out. These scammers seem to have died off more recently, but do be wary.
I personally booked a tour with Socotra Eco Tours on my first trip and can definitely recommend them. I would only trust a reputable Yemeni-based operator or someone that partners with one to put on the trip.
If you contact them regarding travel to Socotra, they’ll be real with you unlike these shams set up in the UAE (and even a few in Yemen) promising everything to the moon and back.
How To Get To Socotra By Air
There is a weekly flight on Yemenia Airways to and from the island from Cairo, Egypt. The flight does make a stopover in Seiyun, Yemen before continuing on to Socotra (or back to Cairo in the other direction). No, I can’t do anything about that– so if you want to go to Socotra right now you have to get to Cairo and yes, you’ll have to stop in mainland Yemen for a couple of hours.
Alternatively as of March 2021, a new route on Mondays from Abu Dhabi to Socotra has emerged on Air Arabia. This is a direct flight, there is no stopover in mainland Yemen.
But booking a flight to Socotra isn’t as straightforward as going to Air Arabia’s or Yemenia’s site and booking a ticket. You’ll need to hire a local operator and book your Socotra tour and have them make your flight arrangements for you.
Not to worry though, I’ve written an entire post dedicated to how to get to Socotra with all the details for both flights as well as other options.
You’ll also need a visa for Yemen, your local operator will arrange this for you.
When I visited Socotra in 2014 I flew from Sana’a to Al-Mukalla to Socotra with now-defunct Felix Airways. Yemenia offered flights several times per week as well.
Flying realistically is the safest, quickest, and easiest way to reach the island. With that said, getting the go-ahead to take a flight there is arduous and difficult and usually results in a resounding no.
Let’s Take The Cement Ship From Salalah
It’s not that easy, reliable, or tolerable, and it does come with some serious risks.
Sure, one guy did it and publicized it. A few others have done it as well prior to him, but it takes several days and is an all-around unpleasant journey. It’s not an easy task to coordinate either- from being allowed on the ship to having the visa arranged for you to pick up when you arrive at the port.
When I was back in Socora in 2019 I did meet one tourist who came by the cement ship and said it was absolutely wretched. She also only was able to spend 2 days in Socotra because the ship’s departures are unreliable and it left so far behind the intended date that she only had a couple of days to explore before she took the weekly flight to Cairo to depart.
With the more recent uptick in Somali piracy-induced hold-ups, standoffs, and hostage situations in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden I’d be aware that the potential for the journey by sea to go badly is very real. Westerners are great bargaining chips and a lucrative hostage-for-money cash cow.
Somali pirates weren’t a huge concern around the waters of Socotra when I visited in 2014. They rarely ever ended up out there, as they like to terrorize the more easily accessible Red Sea.
With little military presence in the Gulf of Aden thanks to the Saudi lead bombardment of Yemen, and the decline in piracy that followed the EU and US operations in the Gulf of Aden, Somali pirates have regained some significant stomping grounds. It is believed that due to the success of the EU and US-led naval operations in the Gulf of Aden and subsequent drop in piracy in the years to follow that shipping companies have become lax in their protocols to avoid hijackings.
So I honestly would opt to save my money up to take the flight. I know it’s expensive, but I can’t do anything about that. The flight, despite being more than 10x more expensive is the best and safest option.
But But… Can We Take A Yacht Out There?
I mean on paper, yes. Yes, you could but all that yammering on I did in the previous paragraphs about Somali Pirates would ward off even the slightest thought of taking your own vessel out there.
There has been at least one yacht to land on Socotra in 2017 with a couple of tourists. But this is without a doubt a dicey prospect and one that you should be well prepared for.
But If You Missed the Good News At The Beginning Of This Post…
Socotra has been notoriously difficult and nearly impossible to visit for the last couple of years. For those interested and intrepid enough, we’ve set up more departures in 2022 to go to Socotra to explore the island’s unique flora & fauna. Click here to read more about the trip and sign up.
So What Has Happened Since 2014 In Socotra?
Before good ol’ ex-president AbdrabbuhMansour Hadi nipped off to Saudi Arabia to escape the battle in Yemen, he allegedly leased the UNESCO-protected island to the UAE for the foreseeable future. With the UAE and Sadi Arabia’s military operations that have taken place on the island, I think it’s safe to say that’s conformation enough to prove that someone gave the Emiratis free reign to destroy one of the planet’s top 4 biodiversity hotspots.
Yup, you read that right, biodiversity hotspot. Over 700 endemic flora and fauna are found on Socotra and nowhere else making Socotra on par with the Galapagos. The only difference is that people would lose their shit if military operations were devastating the rare plant and animal life in the Galapagos.
No one* gives two fucks about the endemics in Socotra. Not even UNESCO, the organization that should give the utmost fucks about the protection of Socotra can’t even be rattled enough to give half a fuck.
*okay, that’s an exaggeration, a few of us give some fucks about Socotra.
With vast swaths of empty desert in the UAE, why would Socotra be used for military operations? Well, quite simply put: you don’t shit in your own backyard.
You take a chunk of land in a marginalized, waning, war-torn country and you appropriate accordingly. Just like every other major player on the world stage. My own country’s government has been doing it for a great while. Why not follow suit?
Similar to Saudi Arabia fighting its own proxy war on mainland Yemen’s ground. Saudi Arabia is acting under the guise that they are trying to stabilize the country.
In reality, they’re blowing the country to bits and backing the Hadi-led government allies, while they wage war with the Houthi-led Revolution (that are alleged to be backed by Iran, but no one truly knows if that is a fact), and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP or the Ansar al-Sharia). Then, of course, ISIS (or ISIL or Daesh or whatever you want to call them) are trying to make their opportunistic land-snatch of the largely destabilized country.
But geesh, who’re the good guys? Well, simply put: they’re all guilty of huge atrocities. But on Saudi Arabia’s part: Why, oh why would you wage war within your own borders when you can stage the event elsewhere?
The UAE has had several bases operating in mainland Yemen for years. If a base was set up in Socotra to give protection and stability to the anarchic waters of the Gulf of Aden with little impact on the species present on the island, it’s unlikely many people would be too upset. But with reports coming from Socotris of the devastation of some of their plant life and the outrage of many Yemenis it doesn’t sound like the UAE’s plans are for the greater good, just its own.
What Can You Do?
Besides, make it known, I don’t have a good answer for it. There is a petition you can sign here but who really knows how much help this will be.
Signing a page online and trying to wave it in the face of one of the world’s richest and most powerful nations in an attempt to make them stop what they’re doing is unlikely to yield the results desired, but it doesn’t hurt to sign it and try.
*I hold nothing against the general populations of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. I do however have huge issues with the actions of their governments. Just like I can’t stand many of the actions of my own country’s government and politicians who prove time and time again they’re only in it for their own benefit at the suffering of everyone else.
Donate to Those Affected By the Crisis in Yemen
Yemen is currently undergoing one of the worst humanitarian crises the road has seen due to the ongoing war. For those that would like to donate to relief projects in Yemen, please consider:
- Zakat Foundation: Provides emergency relief and food distribution in several countries including Yemen.
- International Rescue Committee: Helps to bring safety, education, power, and health services to some of the world’s most devastating humanitarian disasters including Yemen.
- Baitulmaal AHED: Organization that works in Yemen as well as all over the world to help bring poverty and disaster relief.
- Islamic Relief: Working to alleviate hunger, illiteracy, and disease in Yemen and globally.
- Solidarios sin Fronteras: Spanish organization helping bring relief, food, water, and reconstruction projects to Yemen as well as Socotra.