South Sudan has been in the news often the last decade, and for good reason. Between a civil war, genocide, and mass corruption, there’s been a lot of bad stuff to talk about. If you’re thinking about traveling to South Sudan, you may be wondering if it’s safe – or even possible.
Last year, a peace treaty broke out between the two major factions, but there are still frequent clashes between the 60+ tribes of South Sudan and their neighbors. The situation remains unstable and dynamic, and could drastically change overnight – just a it has in neighboring Sudan last week.
All of that being said, it is possible to visit South Sudan safely. And if your goal is to see some of the most awesome, authentic, and unique tribes in the world, it should be high on your list.
Traveling to South Sudan in 2021
Before embarking on our trip to South Sudan, we had so many questions, not limited to:
1. Is South Sudan safe to visit as a tourist right now?
2. Is Juba worth visiting?
3. What are the Covid-19 travel requirements in South Sudan?
As such an unvisited country (by tourists), our trip to South Sudan was full of surprises. There’s just not much content out there – especially regarding South Sudan’s procedures during Covid-19 time.
Is South Sudan safe to visit as a tourist in 2021?
Almost every large foreign government posts warnings about traveling to South Sudan. For example, the US Department of State has a travel advisory stating: “Do not travel to South Sudan due to COVID-19, crime, kidnapping, and armed conflict.” The governments of Australia, the UK, Ireland, and most countries in Europe depict the same picture.
WikiTravel has a banner that says, “As of April 29th, 2020, South Sudanese leaders have negotiated a peace deal, which was agreed on. However, all travelers visiting South Sudan should still be extremely cautious as kidnappings, shootings, and carjackings can happen at anytime, including Juba. In addition, the peace deal can be broken at any time by the involved warring factions and fighting could resume at any moment.”
The reality of safety in South Sudan
You can probably travel to South Sudan safely as long as you exercise these minimum safety precautions, including:
- Always traveling and exploring with a local, trusted guide
- Avoiding moving around at night
- Keeping a low profile; no jewelry, fancy watch, anything else that makes you look rich
- Maintaining an irregular, unpredictable itinerary
There are zones, particularly near the borders with Ethiopia and Sudan, that are particularly dangerous. These are known for heavily armed inter-communal fighting and incidental violence. There is also much arbitrary detention that occurs in these areas. Avoid them at all cost.
- The safest area in South Sudan is between Juba and the Mundari and Dinka cattle camps.
Although you can visit South Sudan safely, corruption is a huge issue. Any random police checkpoint (of which there are many) can make for a long day.
Because of the extremely poor salaries of most law enforcing officials ($10 a MONTH), bribes are the main way around.
To avoid confusion and hassle while ensuring maximum safety, we highly recommend visiting South Sudan with a local tour guide. They will know the areas to avoid, how to best communicate with locals, all the permits required for your trip (way more than you’d think), and how to get around to the tribes.
Ultimately, the risk assessment is up to you.
Is Juba safe? Is it worth visiting?
Juba, the capital, is a typical bustling African city filled with interesting markets, motorbikes galore, well-dressed locals wearing colorful fabrics, and traffic.
As such, it’s not particularly interesting or unique – but there’s nothing inherently unsafe about it. Unsuspecting tourists are not targets by any means, unless they show signs of wealth.
We walked around a few markets in town without feeling uncomfortable. We were told that there are few, but rare pick pockets.
The only thing that stood out – and this happens everywhere in Africa – was the people seeing me and yelling “Cavalo!”, which means “white!”
We did not find many products of interest in the markets we visited in Juba. Most are the same products over and over again, probably produced in a factory in China. Many are more related to Kenya than they are South Sudan.
Is it possible to take photos in Juba?
Be extremely careful taking pictures in Juba. Though some tourists have gotten away with taking pictures, others have been detained and even jailed. This is particularly true when taking pictures near any kind of government staff, including officers and traffic directors.
The government is extremely wary of foreigners posing as tourists while undertaking journalism or even spying. Yes, it’s happened before.
There is a several-hundreds-of-dollars media permit you can obtain that allows you to take pictures in town. But even then, it’s not worth the hassle, and you could still be arbitrarily detained (and asked for a bribe).
Which areas in South Sudan are safe?
The safest area in South Sudan is between Juba and the Mundari and Dinka cattle camps. There are also tours visiting the fascinating Laarim (Boya) and Toposo from the South-east region of Kapoeta.
Avoid the Unity and Upper Nile states, including Malakal.
South Sudan Travel Restrictions
Almost all passengers traveling to South Sudan will need a visa. Luckily (and surprisingly), South Sudan offers an e-visa which really facilitates things.
Simply follow the instructions (which do require travel information, hotel reservations, and a letter of invitation) and pay a $100 fee.
There are Covid-19 related restrictions, of course. You need a negative COVID-19 test or a “COVID Free Certificate” produced by a healthcare practitioner which is dated within 96 hours of arrival, and this will need to be included in your e-visa application. It needs to be stamped with a signature from the health practitioner.
You should have a contact on the ground (tour or hotel) with a phone number you can list on documents you’ll receive on arrival.
How to get a letter of invitation
You may be wondering who will sponsor you up with the required letter of invitation you need to enter South Sudan.
It’s easier than you think.
Many hotels, such as AFEX River Camp (who we used) and Royal Palace Hotel will offer these complimentary with a reservation. Others may have a fee.
Tour providers may also offer letters of invitation.
Getting a PCR test in South Sudan
To our surprise (once again), there are quite a few providers of Covid-19 PCR tests.
We went with BlueMed, who offer results within 3-6 hours or by the next morning at different prices ($70-100+). We opted for the $70 fee, with results by the next morning at 7AM.
The testing center is open 24/7.
Verdict: you’re probably fine
When you consider the hundreds of thousands of people that live their routine lives in Juba, including thousands of NGO personnel, the chances are on your side.
But as we saw in Sudan, things can change literally overnight. So it’s always best to have a contingency plan if things get rough.
Looking back, I’d re-do my trip in a heartbeat. That’s easy said in hindsight, but every other anecdotal personal account I’ve heard of tourists visiting has been fantastic. South Sudan, for its unique, incredible tribes, really is special.