How a crowdfunded travel guidebook could help protect Socotra island

Tamara Hardingham-Gill, CNNPublished 7th September 2020
(CNN) — Made up of enormous sand dunes, craggy mountains, beautiful beaches and unique wildlife, the Yemeni island of Socotra is often referred to as the "Galapagos of the Indian Ocean."
Long a coveted destination for adventurous travelers, this tiny paradise is now potentially under threat after it was recently pulled into the civil conflict that has beset mainland Yemen since 2015.
It's feared the island's rare endemic species, including surreal Dragon Blood Trees endemic to Soctra, and spectacular UNESCO-recognized landscapes could be destroyed if political uncertainty prevents their protection.
While the fate of the island hangs in the balance, help may soon be at hand from what is, particularly in the era of Covid-19 an unlikely source -- the world of tourism.
Which is where Hilary Bradt, a 79-year-old travel writer, comes in.
During her lengthy career as a travel writer, the founder of Bradt Travel Guides has visited some of the most spectacular destinations in the world.
But Socotra, located 60 miles east of the Horn of Africa, remained firmly at the top of her wish list.
When Bradt was finally able to visit the island with her colleague Janice Booth, aged 81, in February, it exceeded their expectations.
The pair were so impressed, they decided to ditch the short leaflet they had planned and produce the "first and only" guidebook to Socotra.
But while they were given the go-ahead initially, the impact of Covid-19 put paid to their plans -- the UK independent guidebook publisher has since experienced a 75% drop in sales and simply doesn't have the finances to publish it this year.
However, Bradt and Booth are determined to release the book in November of this year due to the political developments in Socotra, and have launched a crowdfunder to raise the finances.
"I think it might be the first time any guidebook publisher has tried this route," Bradt tells CNN Travel.

Unique destination

Hilary Bradt and Janice Booth in Socotra
Hilary Bradt and Janice Booth have launched a crowdfunder to publish the"first and only" guidebook to Socotra.
Courtesy Hilary Bradt
"It's something that could only be done specifically for this book. I don't think it would have worked for a guide to the Azores or something like that."
While its the largest island in an Yemeni archipelago, Socotra covers an area of just 3,796 square kilometers.
"It's very, very small, but what is astonishing is how much it manages to pack in," says Booth.
"There's no way one can describe it visually. Everything takes you by surprise. We actually stood and gasped when we went round a corner and saw a particular view."
Socotra's spectacular endemic species, such as the Dragon Blood Tree (or Dracaena cinnabari,) are among its many highlights -- 307 (37%) of its 825 plant species are endemic.
"I'm endlessly fascinated by nature," says Bradt, who has written dozens of guidebooks. "And a place like Socotra that showcases nature in such an original way is particularly exciting -- I had to go."
However, Socotra has little tourist infrastructure, and while there are a couple of hotels on the island, visits here tend to involve camping.
It was previously accessible via a weekly commercial flight from Cairo, but access to the island is now limited due to the pandemic.

Political troubles

The start of our walk through Firhmin Forest.
The island is filled with spectacular endemic species like the Dragon Blood Tree.
Chris Miller
While the island does attract some adventurous travelers, mainland Yemen has been a no-go area since 2014, when the civil war that has pitted a coalition backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels began.
Up until a few months ago, Socotra had managed to avoid being caught up in the bitter war, which has claimed thousands of lives.
However, the island was reportedly taken over by the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council -- which fights for separation for the south of mainland Yemen, in June.
CNN approached the United Nations, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Saudi Arabia and the US Embassy of the Republic of Yemen for a comment on the current situation in Socotra, but received no response.
"For people outside who don't know it very well, it's very difficult to fathom the politics," says Booth. "It's always changing."
Like many, Bradt and Booth are hugely concerned that the ever-changing political troubles may jeopardize the future of the island.
"Those in power are moving in tanks from the mainland over vulnerable sites," explains Bradt.
"They're not paying a great deal of attention to the natural world. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it needs to be protected."
While Yemen has been issued with a Level 4: Do Not Travel -- the highest level — travel advisory by the United States, Bradt and Booth hope the publication of the guidebook will help raise Socotra's profile and boost tourism in the future.
"An authoritative guidebook, which we do think ours is, can help enormously," says Booth. "It just gives the place a little more stature.
"It's win-win once you get tourists going there -- as long as they're the right kind. The people begin to recognize they've got something that actually is a money spinner.
"So they start to look after the natural environment better."
The pair are confident their book will attract "the right kind" due to Bradt's dedicated adventure travel audience, along with the detailed coverage included in the "full-color information-packed guide," which lets potential visitors know exactly what to expect.
They also feel its publication will make Socotra more "internationally visible," so that "damaging political changes can't slip in unnoticed."
But time is of the essence due to the ever-changing situation on the ground, which is why the crowdfunder has proved necessary.

Nearing target

Socotra generic
Bradt and Booth say this is the guidebook they wished they'd had before visiting the island themselves.
Chris Miller
"In March, our income just fell off a cliff and we had to put all our publishing plans on hold," says Bradt.
"But when we saw where it [Socotra] was going politically, we didn't want to delay. Nor did we want a cut price version of this book, because the island is so photogenic.
"We couldn't afford to publish it. But we desperately wanted to.'"
While researching, the co-authors consulted with many experts, including botanists and archaeologists, who've contributed to the guidebook.
Bradt and Booth have set a £10,000 ($13,000) crowdfunding target, which will cover the costs of printing and producing the book.
They've been overwhelmed by the response the campaign has received since it launched earlier this month, as well as the many stories from travelers who were just as enthralled by Socotra as they were.
"People have been saying 'this is the book that I really want,'" adds Booth. "It's been absolutely heartwarming."
The crowdfunder was just under £1,000 (around $1,300) shy of its target at the time of writing.
After decades of traveling the world, Bradt and Booth admit the prospect of spending hours on a plane to visit remote destinations has become less and less appealing.
They plan to remain closer to home in the future, and see the guidebook as something of a swansong.
"We're not going to be traveling to places like Socotra where you have to camp, for many more years," says Bradt.
"So it's [the book's] just a wonderful end to two traveling careers."