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Tourism: the untapped attractions of Eritrea

By Mebrak Ghebreweldi / Guest column:

In this article, I would like to share my personal opinion about one industry for development that is so often discussed: tourism. Before we attempt to invest heavily in tourism, we should ask these questions: What kind of tourism do we want to see in Eritrea?

Do we have adequate infrastructure for sustainable tourism? If not, what can we learn from other countries that are waking up to the devastating and irreparable damage mass tourism has inflicted to the land, the environment and biodiversity? Do we want to see ostentatious five-star hotels, overcrowded sea-sides, plastic bottles, and piles of rubbish left by careless tourists on our seashores or the development of a sustainable, environmentally and traditionally blended, tourism in Eritrea?

We, Eritreans, gave our lives for freedom and we are still defending our country today. As young freedom fighters, we might not have known much about sustainable development, but we dreamed of a green Eritrea. We used to say, “We will make Eritrea Green.” It was our motto. It is quite unimaginable to dream of that while fighting and paying priceless young lives every day. It feels surreal that we had such confidence and absolute certainty that the Eritrean people would achieve independence and develop a ‘Green Eritrea’. We did just that in 1991 after 30 years of fighting, and our green dream is, slowly but surely, making progress.

With the current political climate, improving regional relations within the Horn of Africa countries and the strategic location of Eritrea makes this an ideal time for those with small or big investment capacity to think and plan for a sustainable micro-business investment strategy.

In regard to tourism, Eritrea is blessed with outstanding beauty and wildlife, including the northern and southern Red Sea, the rich and lush land of Barka, and our national historical museum, Sahel, the sweet temperature and beautiful landscape of the highland, including our pretty capital city, Asmara. Perhaps pursuing a sustainable, locally-led, traditional hosting model of tourism might help protect Eritrea’s natural habitats and pristine environments. Such a strategy could enable communities to build their economies without harming the environment, allowing local wildlife to thrive and visitors to enjoy untouched destinations, while contributing to the country’s economic development.

Regarding sustainability and environmental safety, Eritrea can learn from the environmental devastation caused by modern day mass tourism and the knowledge of those countries that are getting the balance right. One way to do this is through community-led sustainable tourism strategy.

A community-led sustainable tourism strategy is built on three pillars — environmental, socio-cultural and economic sustainability. The first step is to develop sustainable tourism anchored on history, culture and national traditions. This will help maintain or improve the environmental conditions in the region where it is implemented. The next step is to have a positive impact, both socially and culturally, on the local population. The third step is to ensure that Eritrean communities are stakeholders of these projects and share revenues that they can use for their well-being and the preservation of their local environment, history and culture.

In my opinion, the real beauty of Eritrea lies in the untold history of the Eritrean people’s resilience in adversity and the harmony, kindness, respect and caring culture among all ethnicities and religious beliefs. Eritrea’s beauty and attractions are its history of formidable struggle against colonialism and occupation. The attractions are the determination of its children to live free from occupation, oppression, poverty, inequality and fear. Our history will generate more income when many of us are inspired to do research, paint, draw, write books and make films. Once the national infrastructure is in place, the development of simple, natural and beautiful visiting centers, museums and historical landmarks will not take a long time. This type of tourism, which does not need five-star hotels, can generate substantial income.

I believe that the long trenches of our front lines of Nakfa should be made destinations of national and international pilgrimage. Landmarks such as Nakfa, Faah, Ararb, and Himbol should be visited regularly to keep the history alive and generate income for the local communities. Mountains such as Denden, Debre Imen, Taba Freweini, and valleys and other places such Adi Shrum, Elaberied and many others are more than just mountains and valleys. They served as shields from bombs and bullets, shelters from heat and rain and ultimately key factors to the successes of the freedom fighters at the battlefields.

Those caves and shades of trees were the freedom fighters’ schools, conference halls and homes where they ate, read, sang and danced. Most importantly, they are the last resting places of thousands of our freedom fighters. Soon, we should turn them to the best historical monuments in the country. They are and will be the best evidence of our history of sacrifices. These places are the museums of our history, to be visited by our children and future generations. They will be suitable for retreat, reflection and connection.

The time has now come when school buses can take children to visit our historical sites. School children can walk on the riverbed of the longest hospital in the world (Ararb) and visit Bliqat, where 2000 young female EPLF fighters in 1978 took a nine-month military training. Moving down from Bliqat to Mahmimet, they can visit the place where all the young men and women took political and military training, and Arag, the EPLF center for art and culture, where poems, songs and lyrics of success, loss, pain, hope, love, respect and unity were produced, and then staged at the front lines at night using generators and flickering torches.

Other places that are worth visiting include: the final grave yard of Wqaw, the desert hill of Awget and Grat; the graveyard of Nadow, Adi Shirum; Massawa and Assab (our Red Sea ports); the front lines of Gindae and Debub, where the last push was made to our freedom all the way to Asmara in 1991; and, of course, Sawa the riverbed with big trees and the sweetest drinking water, a refuge for our freedom fighters in the past and where Eritrea’s future is molded at present.

The unique history of Eritrean women’s participation in the armed struggle is hard to
believe. Eritrean mothers fought on the side of their children so that they can be free from murder, torture, oppression, imprisonment and fear. Eritrean mothers were, and still are, defenders of our freedom, history and equality.

There is probably no more inspiring activity than visiting the gallery of the history of Eritrean women’s heroism at the National Union of Eritrean Women. The same can be achieved by visiting the hometowns or villages of Eritrean women leaders such as Adey Fana and Adey Zineb to connect to their spirits, the places where they lived in and made history.

Now is the time we do research and develop a strategy of how we share our history and our
heritage. Eritrean and other African schools, colleges and universities could use the Eritrean history as a case study for gender issues and conflict resolution. If Eritrea is the best place to study ‘Conflict Resolution’ for the students of the University of George Mason in the USA, which sends its students to learn about the history of Eritrea, it should be an inspiration for African universities to send their students to experience Eritrea’s history.

The aim of my writing this article is to share and perhaps create some dialogue about our dream of a prosperous, green and developed Eritrea and how we can achieve those so that the generations after us can say something good about us. I am sure we are all looking to develop our nation without tipping the environmental, historical and cultural balance. Whether it is tourism or food processing, or other businesses, how do we create jobs and opportunities to the younger generations at home without spoiling their land and contaminating their drinking waters? We should take the right development path today so that they will be grateful to their ancestors for fighting and sacrificing their lives for freedom, for eliminating all kinds of colonization and leaving their environment safe.

So, what kind of development do we want to see and what kind of Eritrea do we wish to leave for the generations to come? Let us engage in meaningful and forward-looking discussions!

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