Is it safe to visit South Sudan is the first question that travellers ask. If we had planned to visit every country ten years ago, South Sudan would not have been on our list, because it didn’t exist yet. South Sudan is currently the newest country in the world having gained independence from Sudan in 2011. It wasn’t an easy split. Sadly, as soon as the new country was born, it has experienced civil war and conflict. So, with the current state of instability and insecurity, is it safe to visit South Sudan?
You won’t find many travellers visiting South Sudan. The foreigners who you will find here are usually diplomats, NGOs, and UN workers trying to help the country get back on its feet by providing aid and much-needed resources. Everyone else who wishes to visit has usually two concerns. Is it safe to visit South Sudan and how do I get a visa?
If you read anything about visiting South Sudan, 99% of it will be negative. From government travel advice to the very few blog posts online, you will find that a visit to this country is strongly advised against for any reason.
South Sudan sits high on that list. And the first important question we had was: Is it safe to visit South Sudan?
We researched ahead of time to see whether or not it is safe to visit South Sudan in December 2019. The country is basically a red no-go zone. Juba seemed to be the only part of South Sudan that we may be able to visit being independent travellers (not part of an organised trip with guides etc).
Providing that we took the right precautions once we reached Juba, such as reserving secure accommodation and moving around the city with a car and local guide, we felt safe and we think it is safe to visit South Sudan even as two females.
Is it safe to visit South Sudan? Us at the airport in Juba.
Do your research before your arrival
Our flight from Addis Ababa touched down in the capital city of Juba around midday. One thing we have learned when booking flights all over the world is that it’s always best to arrive during daylight hours. This is especially important when arriving in countries that are unsafe or have little infrastructure. And if you are worried if is it safe to visit South Sudan, doing good research is extremely important. You can find more practical info in our blog Our Best Tips for Safe Travel.
What we have previously learned from travel to countries that are considered unsafe and receive very few visitors is that they are always expensive. South Sudan was no exception.
The currency in South Sudan is South Sudanese Pounds. You can exchange USD for it once you are in South Sudan.
Arriving in Juba
As we approached Juba from the air in our small plane, we could see that it was mostly flat and sparsely populated. Upon arrival, the first sight we see is many WFP (World Food Programme), UN, and other NGO planes filling the parking spaces to the side of the tarmac. Of course, this was not a usual airport, and looking down on it from the plane we also wondered if it is safe to visit South Sudan for two female travellers and what we should expect.
Before walking into the small arrivals hall, we first had to stop at a small makeshift building on the side of the airport. We were asked to fill in a health form declaring what countries we’d been to recently. And we had to declare any symptoms or illness on arrival.
Health check first
First, we slathered on some hand sanitizer as instructed, then, we proceed through a small office where the nurse in a white coat takes our temperature. We’re quite used to this process by now after travelling through West and Central Africa last year. Check out 17 Things to know before travelling to West Africa.
The nurse uses a temperature gun that he directs at the side of my head and reads my body temperature. This is to essentially check for viruses, in particular, the deadly Ebola virus. We personally don’t feel that you should be worried if is it safe to visit South Sudan because you might contract a deadly disease, but don’t forget that medical help can be limited. So should you be injured or fallen sick, you might need to fly out for better health care.
We cleared customs and I could see that the immigration guys look a little puzzled as to why we’re in their country. We don’t have light blue diplomatic passports and when they ask us why we’re here, we simply answer, “for tourism”. Maybe they were thinking the same:” Is it safe to visit South Sudan for tourists?”.
First impressions of Juba
We walk outside to find our arrival transfer driver waiting for us. He’s smiling and introduces himself as Robert. As we drive towards our hotel, Robert points out a few places in town. I wouldn’t have realised that we were driving along the main street in Juba unless he mentioned it. The street reminded us of other capital cities in parts of Central Africa mostly.
There is very little infrastructure here. Looking out from my car window, I could see old shops, locals walking along the sides of the dusty roads, big blue trucks with ‘clean drinking water’ printed on the side, and many large white cars with the United Nations (UN) logo.
Personal safety was the main reason why we questioned if it is safe to visit South Sudan for women before we came. We were yet to get out there and see for ourselves.
Where to stay in Juba, South Sudan
After researching our limited accommodation choices in Juba, we decided to book our stay with Acacia village. This place has been recommended by other travellers due to its comfort and facilities.
The double security fence to enter our hotel complex is the reflection of the security issue. Is it safe to visit South Sudan?
But most of all for the high level of security it offers. If you’re wondering if is it safe to visit South Sudan, well these photos probably give you an idea that it can be a difficult question to answer. Another bonus is that they were able to organise an entry permit in advance for us, (for a fee of $100 each). This allowed us to collect our visa on arrival, the price is USD100.
Our stay at Acacia Village was very comfortable, but for USD 150 per night, I’d expect it to be. As I mentioned earlier with other insecure countries such as the Central African Republic, DRC and Chad, accommodation that is suitable (security-wise) for foreigners is ridiculously expensive.
Is it safe to visit South Sudan? There are not many hotels to choose from, so we decided to go for the safest option at Acacia Village.
Sadly this region of Africa is known for patchy reports on personal safety so naturally, the most common question for travellers is “Is it safe to visit South Sudan, DRC, Chad or the Central African Republic or Chad” and we do hope our experiences will help you with your trip planning.
NGO, diplomats, and UN workers
Over the duration of our stay, the only foreigners we saw in Juba were not there for tourism, they were there to help the country gain stability and security. We saw many UN workers, diplomats, and NGOs. There was a great deal of them staying at Acacia Village as there are rooms here for long-term stays. The hotel has also an amazing restaurant and we had a really beautiful dinner while staying here.
The Nile river in Juba
Exploring the capital city Juba
We booked a half-day city tour with our own private driver/guide through the team at Acacia Village. A full-day tour is $150 or you can hire the guide for $20 per hour.
We took this option and spent our time with James, a local driver/guide who is also a talented musician in South Sudan. James was super cool, Bob Marley style dreadlocks and we were surprised to find out he has toured to many countries with his band, including Australia.
Honestly, there isn’t much at all in the way of sites to see in Juba. For us, it was more about seeing how the locals live, their way of life and we wanted to check out the Nile river too. James drove us around the city, pointing out some areas of interest and answering our questions.
Is it safe to visit South Sudan? Do your research and don’t take too many photos.
We asked James if he thinks is it safe to visit South Sudan for tourists and he smiled and said: “Yeah, South Sudan has many problems, but we are very friendly people and would love to see more people visit South Sudan.”
We visited a nice church in Juba as the main religion in South Sudan is Christianity. This differs from Sudan, as the main religion there is Islam.
St Theresa Cathedral In Juba South Sudan
The traffic near the Nile was grid-locked, so we asked James if we could park the car, hop out and walk across the river with him and all the other locals. No problem. We felt very short walking among the South Sudanese people, they are super tall.
James took us to a peaceful area along the banks of the Nile to sit and drink some Ethiopian coffee and chill out with the locals.
Our guide James in South Sudan
Photography is discouraged
Juba is a city that you must be content with just observing and taking it all in. As we experienced in Chad, DRC, Central African Republic, and many countries during our travels in Africa, taking photography here is highly discouraged. So is it safe to visit South Sudan and take photos like in other places? Definitely not.
There is military everywhere, so you will land yourself in some trouble if they catch you taking photos of something they don’t like. Also, the people here don’t really appreciate seeing cameras or iPhones snapping photos of anything near them, and especially not of them. Of course, it is safe to visit South Sudan with a camera, we had no issues with that at the airport and customs. If you are outside or with locals, always ask first.
In some way, when other travellers asked us if is it safe to visit South Sudan, we said yes. Just avoid taking photos.
The people in South Sudan are some of the tallest
Is it safe to visit South Sudan capital Juba? I felt more relaxed than expected
From my experience in Juba over a couple of days, the city felt much safer than I had expected. It’s clear to see that life isn’t easy for the South Sudanese people, with trucks carrying ‘clean drinking water’ around town, roads in terrible condition, garbage everywhere, and limited options for food here. It goes without saying that there is so much work to be done to help give this country a chance.
The same rule applies in this city as it has done in many of the dangerous cities we’ve visited over the past year. The majority of the people we meet in these places are friendly and welcoming. Is it safe to visit South Sudan we asked, them nodding, saying yes proudly to be part of a new country after years of the long conflict.
I do hope that the situation improves rapidly for the South Sudanese people and hopefully visitors first question when it comes to South Sudan won’t be: “Is it safe to visit South Sudan?” but “What to see and do in South Sudan?”
South Sudan Dinka Tribe. Photo credit Randy Fath
What else is there to do in South Sudan?
If you’re interested in visiting other parts of South Sudan, there are opportunities to do so by joining a small group or private tour. The most popular experience for visitors is to see some of the traditional tribes. We have some close friends who visited this part of the world and when we asked if it was safe to visit South Sudan to learn more about the tribes, they said it was one of the most memorable experiences they have had.
The only way to really do this is to contact a local guide/tour operator on the ground. Having a local operator on the ground can else help to ease the nerves for travellers worried if it is safe to visit South Sudan.
One thing is for certain, organised tours don’t come cheap. In saying that, if you have the time and the budget, I’d recommended choosing this option to gain a deeper insight into South Sudanese culture.
Rach is a self-confessed travelling foodie. Her passion for food and culture has seen her eat her way through 190 countries. She's currently on a big food adventure to visit EVERY country in the world!
When Rach isn't travelling, you can find her at the beach, drinking coffee or wine with friends or chowing down on the best eats around her home city of Melbourne, Australia.