Culture is the overall manifestation of social life, identity and political and technological development of a society. Tourism has a vital role in the development of different destinations all around the world. Culture is considered as one of the primary key assets in tourism through the promotion of tangible and intangible elements. In the field of tourism, this is called cultural tourism. Cultural Tourism (culture tourism) is the subset of tourism concerned with a traveler’s engagement with a country´s or region’s culture, specifically the lifestyle of the people in those geographic areas, the history of those people, their art, architecture, archaeological artifacts and sites, religion(s), and other elements that helped shape their way of life. Cultural tourism also includes tourism in urban areas, particularly historic or large cities and their cultural facilities such as museums, galleries and theatres. It can also include tourism in rural areas showcasing the traditions of indigenous cultural communities (i.e. festivals, rituals), and their values and lifestyle, as well as niches like industrial tourism and creative tourism.
According to ICOMOS Charter for Cultural Tourism (drafted in April 1997) cultural tourism can be defined as that activity which enables people to experience the different ways of life of other people, thereby gaining, first hand, an understanding of their customs, traditions, the physical environment, the intellectual ideas and those places of architectural, historic, archaeological or other cultural significance which remain from earlier times. According to the United Nations World Travel Organization- UNWTO definition, cultural tourism differs from recreational tourism in that it seeks to gain an understanding or appreciation of the nature of the place being visited. All movements of persons might be included in the definition because they satisfy the human need for diversity, tending to raise the cultural level of the individual and to new knowledge, experience and encounters.
It is generally agreed that cultural tourists spend substantially more than standard tourists do. Cultural tourism has been defined as ‘the movement of persons to cultural attractions away from their normal place of residence, with the intention to gain new information and experiences to satisfy their cultural needs’. Cultural tourism has a long history, and with its roots in the grand tour, is arguably the original form of tourism. It is also one of the forms of tourism that most policy makers seem to be betting on for the future. The World Tourism Organization (WTO), for example, asserted that cultural tourism accounted for 37% of global tourism, and forecast that it would grow at a rate of 15% per year. Such figures are often quoted in studies of the cultural tourism market (e.g. by Water, 1993), but are rarely backed up with empirical research. In the 21st century, most of the countries in the world started to utilize cultural tourism as major income generating strategies for their Gross National Domestic Product (GNP). A recent study of the cultural consumption habits of Europeans (European Commission, 2002) indicated that people visited museums and galleries abroad almost as frequently as they did at home. This underlines the growing importance of cultural tourism as a source of cultural consumption.
It would be significant to address the question of cultural tourism in Eritrea and assess its development in reference to the resources and facilities. During the struggle, the EPLF had worked zealously for the development of cultural tourism in the liberated areas and among the Eritrean Diaspora. Cultural shows and sport tournaments among military commands (Divisions) and different sectors of the organization were organized in as much as creating cultural platforms for fighters and people in the liberated areas to raise their awareness and appreciation of the culture and history of the nation. Following independence, the government strived to rehabilitate the existing tourism infrastructure and had invested immensely in the development of new infrastructure for hotels, restaurants and recreation centers. The government has also given priority to enrich and expand cultural tourism through distinct activities. Even though numerous activities related to the development of tourism infrastructure are undertaken in Eritrea, the most imperative activities are festivals, national holidays, religious ceremonies and organized visits to historical sites, museums and natural heritages. After the independence of Eritrea, cultural tourism has developed gradually and particularly focused on national festivals, tour to national programs and historical sites. These could create and enhance nationalism, harmony, moral and ethical values for generations. Cultural tourism has a vital role to reflect the past and present cultural and social values of the society. Different festivals and national holidays provide platform for cultural shows of ethnic-groups, their distinct ways of dressing, traditional songs, dramas, folklore, poetry, craftsmanship, traditional cuisines, vernacular architecture, etc.
In addition, national tour programs have significant contribution in cultural tourism in the way that the country can best reflect its past civilizations, technological development, political and economic powers to the wider world. The wide range of cultural and natural heritage resources in the form of ancient buildings, architectures, monuments, industrial areas, archaeological sites and natural features of the country can be utilized for this purpose. Archaeological and historical sites such as Qohaito, Matara, Adulis, Buia, Dahlak Islands, the Nakfa trenches, Asmara Modernist Architecture and the like can be exploited for the development of cultural tourism in Eritrea. These sites have a great potential to be inscribed in the World Heritage List which is imperative for the rise and enhancement of cultural tourism. Domestic cultural tourism is also accessible for entertainment and the construction of healthy citizen. For instance, the cultural and sport competitions that have been organized among regional administrations, cities, defense forces and in the Diaspora created among the youth and nationals peace, harmony and veneration.
The National Festivals are the core manifestations of culture, history and tourism in Eritrea. In the pavilions of the six regional administrations (Zobas) established during the festivals, the living styles of the different ethnic groups of the country are easily seen. All the performances during the National Festivals, such as oral tradition, cultural shows, dancing, and poetry and singing contests are the main source of cultural tourism. These performances ultimately leave imprints on the psychological, cultural and social aspects of the youth and the children in the country.
People of the country come and celebrate the festival in one compound and share culture, history, heritage and development. Thus, cultural tourism can be used as recreation and educational platform. In addition, cultural tourism respects the preservation, conservation, prevention and protection of cultural and natural heritage of the nation. During the National Festival, domestic cultural tourism becomes vibrant owing to the number of visitors. The cultural shows and performances as well as the bazaars can best be exploited to integrate the tangible and intangible aspects of the Eritrean culture during these events.
The paramount advantage of cultural tourism principally depends on economic value. State parties are urged to focus on the sites having potential economic values. Thus, governments and experts become involved in the conservation and management of the sites for continued touristic attractions, employment opportunities and economic benefits that are acquired from these heritage resources. The revenue acquired can be used in the conservation and promotion of the sites for sustainable use and development of the surrounding communities. The economic advantages of cultural tourism are two-fold. International tourists mainly flock to and visit outstanding heritage places and this generates hard currencies for the services rendered. On similar account, service giving private enterprises (mainly hotels, restaurants and shops) benefit from the financial turnout of services and hospitality. Cultural tourism is one of the vital forms of income generating sectors globally. Thus, considering the rich and unparalleled heritage of Eritrea, it is important to develop, widen and promote cultural tourism activities by integrating all forms of tangible and intangible heritage resources as well as finding comprehensive approaches of multi-disciplinary engagement for this pursuit.
A column prepared in collaboration with the Eritrea’s culture and sports commission