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Highlighting Tourism: Development and Leading Attractions (Abridged Version)

Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion

Tourism is one of the world’s largest and most important economic sectors. It is estimated that over a billion tourists travel to an international destination every year, while domestic tourism continues to grow. Today, tourism accounts for a large proportion of global gross domestic product and also represents a significant percentage of the world’s total exports. A large body of empirical work from settings around the world has recognized tourism as an important determinant of economic growth, and although estimates vary, the tourism sector is believed to employ about one in every ten people worldwide. At the same time, it provides livelihoods and income-generating opportunities to hundreds of millions more.

Notably, tourism also stimulates investments in new infrastructure and human capital, can help to conserve the natural environment, cultural assets and traditions, and may promote reductions in poverty and inequality. (For example, women make up over half of the workforce in the tourism sector.) Tourism also augments foreign exchange reserves, which is particularly vital for many developing countries; empirical analyses suggest that for the world’s forty poorest countries, tourism ranks as the second-most important source of foreign exchange.

Highlighting Eritrea

Although Eritrea is far from the largest in terms of geographic area (covering an area of approximately 125,000 km²), it boasts a wide-range of tourist attractions. Perhaps the most popular and well-known is the capital, Asmara, officially recognized as a World Heritage site by UNESCO and described as, “an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context”. Across Asmara, over 400 modernist buildings survive, many well-preserved. These include Fiat Tagliero, Cinema Impero, and the Central Post Office, and the bowling alley, to name a few. In addition, Asmara features an assortment of historic public and private buildings, including cinemas, shops, banks, religious structures, public and private offices, industrial facilities, and residences, representing some of the finest examples of Art Deco, Cubist, Expressionist, Futurist, Neoclassical architecture.

Beyond architecture, Asmara offers a delicious, unique culinary experience marked by a rich diversity of dishes, a warm, hospitable climate, a polite and welcoming local population, and invariable peace and security.

Another one of Eritrea’s main draws is Massawa, along the Red Sea, and a vast constellation of islands, including Dahlak Kebir. Massawa features an assortment of historic sites, while the extensive coastline – which at approximately 1,900 km long makes it among the longest in all of Africa – is pristine, offering the opportunity for bathing, snorkeling, and water sports. Eritrea’s islands, meanwhile, present the chance for international-standard scuba diving, as well as the opportunity to visit ancient Turkish and Islamic ruins. Some of the first followers of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) came to Eritrea in 615 seeking protection, meaning that Eritrea became one of the first non-Arabian locations for contact with Islam. This long history is marked by the Sahaba Mosque, among the oldest in Africa, as well as the 500-year-old Sheikh Hanafi Mosque in Massawa.

Eritrea also has a very diverse flora and fauna, both at land and in the sea. Among the country’s most important ecosystems are the coastal marine and island ecosystems of the Red Sea. The waters off of Eritrea’s coastline contain over 1,100 fish species and 44 genera of hard coral, resulting in one of the highest recorded levels of endemism and species diversity for a water body. Remarkably, around 18 percent of fish species and 20 percent of coral species are reported to be endemic to these waters.

As well, between 380-400 km of the Eritrean mainland and islands coastlines are occupied by mangrove forests, with three of the seven mangrove species present in the Red Sea found the Eritrean coast. Turning to land, Eritrea has a unique northern African elephant population, and the world’s only viable population of free-ranging African wild ass (donkey). The country is also home to a number of other globally rare and endangered species, such as the Nubian Ibex and several gazelles. Several years ago, a long-missing gazelle species, the Eritrean Gazelle, was also rediscovered after nearly 90 years.

In addition, while a number of surveys are ongoing, it is believed that there are between 550-600 bird species in Eritrea (comprising a mix of resident and regular seasonal migrants). In recent years, studies have also recorded more than 10 reptile species (mainly lizards) in the country. Excitingly, one species of amphibian, the Asmara Toad, previously thought to be extinct has recently been rediscovered, while the Eritrea Side-neck Turtle, a species found only in Eritrea and that had been feared extinct, was observed again several years ago. Eritrea’s plant and agricultural biodiversity is also considerable. The country is the center of origin for several field crops and there are clear indicators of rich genetic diversity both in cultivated and wild forms. Moreover, the Northern and Southern Red Sea regions of the country house some of the last remaining tropical coniferous and broad-leaved forests along the Horn of Africa.

Beyond those presented above, Eritrea boasts myriad other beautiful attractions, albeit lesser known. Accordingly, the following paragraphs shift the focus to shedding revelatory light on these charms. (Note that what is presented below represents only an extremely brief sample of what is actually a tremendously long list of personal favorites.)

One truly awe-inspiring place to visit in Eritrea is Nakfa. The “place of resilience” and the EPLF’s mountain fortress during the long liberation struggle, Nakfa is a small town of vast historical significance. It represents a symbol of Eritrean determination and resistance to colonial domination. In 1977, after having seemingly been on the verge of victory, the EPLF strategically retreated to Nakfa due to the massive intervention of the former USSR. At Nakfa they built heavy fortifications, including a forty-kilometer-long, labyrinth-like defensive trench in the surrounding mountains. Despite repeated attempts and extensive foreign support, the Ethiopian army was unable to dislodge the Eritreans from Nakfa. Between 1978 and 1981, the Dergue unleashed five large-scale military campaigns against the EPLF, none of which resulted in success. Today, Nakfa is a calm, serene town that not only offers visitors a pleasant trip and some breathtaking landscapes, but also a moving look at one of the most important chapters from the country’s remarkable past.

Another must-see is the Tank Graveyard, located in Asmara. To most, it would simply appear to be a huge scrapheap, overflowing with rusted tanks, trucks, and other wrecked vehicles, along with spent ammunition and destroyed war materiel. In reality, however, the Tank Graveyard is much, much more. The destroyed military hardware that fills the graveyard are remnants from Eritrea’s long war of independence, when Eritrean freedom fighters took on and defeated Africa’s largest, best-equipped army.

Although throughout the duration of the protracted conflict, Ethiopia was heavily backed by the Cold War superpowers, the US and USSR (sometimes simultaneously), as well as many other countries, including, among others, Israel, East Germany, Cuba, and Yemen, Eritreans received no substantive international economic, political, or military support. They mostly relied on themselves. Since independence, the Tank Graveyard has stood out not only as a proud marker of national liberation and freedom, but also as a powerful symbol and testament of Eritreans’ resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

While Asmara and Massawa tend to feature heavily within conversations about tourism in Eritrea, the country possesses many other locations that hold special appeal. Blessed with immense beauty and a blend of cultures, Gash Barka is one such place. Regarded as Eritrea’s breadbasket, Gash Barka is also the largest region in the country, comprising 16 sub-zones and around 1000 villages and towns of differing sizes. While Barentu, the capital of the region, is of course a lovely attraction, featuring colorful diversity and vibrant communities, other must-see places are Agordat, Omhajer, Goluj, Tessenei, and Habereda’e, the birthplace of Hamid Idris Awate.

Adi Keyih is one of the 12 administrative districts of the Debub region, and not far from Senafe, which is another pleasant town. Adi Keyih is renowned for its huge number of archeological and historical sites, including Kohaito, Tekondae, Hishmele, Keskese, Der’a, Aba-Selama, and Mealewya. Kohaito, which is positioned at an altitude of around 2700 meters, is a particularly popular destination for local and foreign visitors alike. It is believed the location once served as a kind of summer retreat location for the rich merchants that were resident in nearby towns. Today, its ruins are spread over a large area, approximately 2.5 kms wide and 15 kms long. (Remarkably, according to researchers, as much as 80 to 90 percent of its ruins remain unexcavated.) Among Kohaito’s most important ruins is the Temple of Mariam Wakiro, built on a rectangular plan on a solid platform, and which may have been the site of a very early Christian church or even a pre-Christian temple. In the local language this site has long been referred to as the “Abode of the Prestigious One.” Not far from Kohaito is another spectacular attraction: Mount Emba Soira. Reaching well over 3000 meters, it offers breathtaking views of the entire surrounding region.

Eritrea’s National Museum, established shortly after the country’s independence, additionally provides an amazing experience and numerous interesting materials. It includes a range of items and exhibitions, including paleontological discoveries, archaeological items, natural history displays, a medieval section, an ethnographic section, and archives of dazzling art works.

Last, it would be remiss to discuss tourism without mentioning Eritrea’s greatest asset: its people. Comprising a rich kaleidoscope of ethnolinguistic groups, religious faiths, and cultures, Eritrean people are invariably friendly, hospitable, and incredibly welcoming, and they tend to embrace visitors with great warmth and extreme generosity. They are what makes the country truly special.

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