Socotra: The Other Galapagos Awaits Tourists

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Tony Waltham / Getty

Dragon's Blood Tree, Dracaena cinnabari, endemic to Diksam Plateau, central Socotra Island, Yemen

On the other side of the world, in the middle of another ocean, lies a second Galapagos: the remote island of Socotra where more than one third of the 800 or so local plant species are found nowhere else on earth, endemic to a place of prehistoric exoticism that has been called the most alien-looking location on the planet. Giant black centipedes scurry up the cliff-dwelling desert rose (Adenium obesum), a portly tree covered in shiny rubbery bark which thins gradually and splits into skeletal branches, a fragile pink flower erupting from each tip; it's a peculiar touch of fragility in an otherwise merciless location. In the highlands, Socotran land crabs scuttle along rocks. Living at and altitude of 2,300 feet, they will never see the Indian Ocean below. Almost two-thirds of the 1,400 sq. mile island is a protected national park.

Socotra's dragon blood tree (Dracaena cinnabaribe) grows only on the plateau. The crimson sap that gives this tree its name was once believed by traders to be actual dragon's blood, with powerful medicinal purposes. The trees, which stand scattered across the highlands, resemble giant umbrellas blown inside out by the wind. Their branches intertwine before thinning into thick, pointed leaves.

In summer, or the windy season as the 44,000 locals call it, the seas are too rough to allow visitors to sail into the island. On the coast, during the season, winds ram white sand up the vertical limestone cliffs, forming dunes more than half a mile high. At their base, hardy plants cling to the red rock — Dorstenia gigas, the Socotran fig, supposedly doesn't even need soil to grow. In a sultry mangrove swamp behind Sha'ub beach, a solitary cove entrapped by steep black cliffs on either side, thousands of crooked sticks have pushed through the sand; on Socotra, tree roots grow up, not down.

Apart from biologists and anthropologists, only a few thousand tourists stay on the island each year. But apart from the environmental challenges, there is one big reason few outsiders come to this rare living laboratory of evolution: Socotra is part of the troubled nation of Yemen.

Yemen, which is dependent for up to 80% of its revenues on oil that is running out, is counting on tourism to provide a more sustainable income source. Indeed, the government, which had restricted entry to the 1,400 sq. mile island until 1991, now wants more people to visit. But you still have to go through the mainland in order to reach Socotra and eco-tourism is being held back by fears of al-Qaeda and the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom in the mainland. (And, in the not so distant past, Socotra has seen its share of trouble: the hulks of Soviet tanks stand rusting on its western shores.) So for now, Socotra's long white beaches and translucent turquoise waters remain lonely and unfamiliar.

Environmentalist might be cheered that the potentially disruptive presence of mass tourism has been avoided, but even so, the island's primeval plant and animal life is endangered and suffering — victimized by human encroachment, imported flora and fauna and, some scientists say, climate change. Goats, which are not indigenous, seem to pose one of Socotra's gravest threats, devouring and stunting all new growth in their path. The rare cucumber tree (Dendrosicyos socotranum), a 12-foot monster sprouting broccoli-shaped leaves and a relative of the cucumber, is being cut down for timber as Socotrans abandon their traditional lifestyles, moving out of caves and into houses in the main town of Hadibo or smaller settlements. Meanwhile, scientists are puzzled over reports that recently, there have been no new natural saplings of the dragon blood tree. While some scientists point to climate change or other factors, Meetag Moqbel, an amateur botanist and Socotran guide, has a simpler answer: "I blame the goats."

Would-be tourists need not sail the seas to get to Socotra. You can fly there from the Yemeni capital Sana'a on one of the regular flights that began operating in 1999. Don't expect to use public transport on the island — there are only a couple of paved roads, so for around $100 a day, the only option is an all-inclusive tour with a 4x4, driver and English-speaking guide, food and tents. Guides know the best spots to snorkel over protected coral reefs full of tropical fish and turtles and have an intricate knowledge of the island's plant life.

Visitors who do make it are treated to a living museum set against an eerie, seemingly uninhabitable landscape. A colossal limestone plateau covers most of the island, sliced across the middle by the jagged granite Hajhir Mountains that can be visited on foot or by camel. Monsoon rains cut through the soluble limestone to create an elaborate network of gigantic caves, and underground freshwater streams pour out of cliff-side cave openings high above the shoreline. Some of the drier caves can be explored. Local children — who chatter away in their unwritten, pre-Islamic language of Socotri — will lead you down mile-long tunnels that open up into ballroom-size caverns with menacing stalactites that shimmer under the flashlight. On occasion you'll find a 3-foot Socotran pygmy cow, grazing on mosses deep inside.

Omar Babelgheith, the Yemeni deputy minister of tourism, wants tourists to come but says they shouldn't expect luxury. "Because Socotra is a protected UNESCO world heritage site, we cannot build huge hotels or do anything to affect habitats," he says. But he insists that they will be safe. "Socotra is the safest island in Yemen; we have never had any security issues there. People think Yemen is dangerous, but hearing on the news is not the same as seeing for yourself."