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Eritrea's Tourism – A Development Booster

Beautiful Asmara, Eritrea (May 2016) - Credit: Eritrea In-Pictures

Tourism – A Development Booster

By Mela Ghebremedhin

These past few years, I have noticed a growing number of tourists coming to Eritrea. Many are from Italy there are some from also other parts of Europe, Australia and elsewhere. “Your country has so much touristic potential” is the usual comment that one hears from the tourists. Those tourists are right.

These past few years, I have noticed a growing number of tourists coming to Eritrea. Many are from Italy there are some from also other parts of Europe, Australia and elsewhere. “Your country has so much touristic potential” is the usual comment that one hears from the tourists. Those tourists are right.

Eritrea has immense potential in tourism; yet the country remains mostly undiscovered. “When I decided to travel with my daughter to Eritrea, I had to deal with many negative comments but I wanted to see with my own eyes and for my daughter to discover by herself rather than listening to hearsays”, said a French tourist I met in Massawa last month. These kinds of travellers are now coming gradually to visit and see with their own eyes. There is a rise in backpacker tourists, young groups and the elderly who come looking for places where culture, harmony, landscapes, architecture and history are found and, more importantly, far away from the “mass tourism”. This is where Eritrea’s potential resides. It is a type of tourism which goes in line with the development and preservation of cultural values and the environment. Promoting tourism for development is what lies behind this year’s World Tourism Day observed on September 27th.

In fact, under the theme of “2017 International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development”, the Eritrean Tourism Service Association (ETSA) in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism – Central region branch and the Asmara Heritage Project office organized various events in Asmara. The local theme focused on “Asmara for Sustainable Tourism” in line with Asmara’s inscription into the UNESCO World Heritage list. “We are never bored to walk around the city. There is always something to discover by just looking at the architecture. Asmara isn’t a common city”, said Mr. Medhane Amanuel, accompanied by his co-workers, Mr. Haile Michael and Mr. Faniel Habtemichael, all artists who made miniature wooden architectural representations of Asmara’s famous sites such as the Opera House Cinema Asmara and Fiat Tagliero. Their artworks were displayed at an exhibition held at the Municipality Hall this past weekend for the occasion of World Tourism Day.

Celebrated for the 23rd time in Eritrea, this year was a different celebration as it comes at a time of the inscription of Asmara as a world heritage site. It finally gave the accreditation the capital city deserves. “Cultural heritage is a way to get one country to be known”, said Eng. Medhane Teklehaimanot from the Asmara Heritage Project office who contributed greatly to Eritrea’s inscription. World Tourism Day provided an opportunity for Eritrea to boost its tourism potential and be renowned for its beauty, hospitality and safety. What a better day to celebrate Asmara’s achievement than on World Tourism Day!

World Tourism Day was celebrated through various events and campaigns. An interview was held on EriTV a week before the day with the chairman of ETSA, Mr. Solomon Abraha. Mr. Solomon explained the importance of promoting tourism as a means for development. In doing so, important aspects have to be taken into consideration. Hospitality, the provision of services, hygiene and sanitation were key words in this year’s campaign. “Keeping our streets clean, our restaurants and hotels are key in welcoming tourists”, the chairman said. Accordingly, a cleaning day was organized on September 29th. The idea was to put all cafes, bars, restaurants and shops in competition and evaluate their level of hygiene as well as hospitality. Everything was closed until 8am to give time for cleaning. Monitored by the association, this sensitization campaign will continue for the next six months. In the morning hours of Saturday the 30th, the official ceremony was held at the Municipality hall in Asmara. The picturesque hall with its high ceiling, chandeliers, its impressive wooden stage combined with standing banners representing Asmara’s architectural heritage welcomed guests. Ladies and gentlemen standing by the entrance door wearing their traditional outfits handed roses to all guests. Music reminiscing the old days and chanting Asmara were played at the back. The house was full. It was time for the opening ceremony.

The crowd listened to Mr. Tekeste Asgodom who introduced the two competitions, which took place in the capital Asmara. The two competitions consisted of a cleaning contest and a photographic one. The latter was awaited for a month to know the result. Mr. Zerai Haile, member of the contest committee continued by explaining the photography competition. The idea was to illustrate Asmara’s beauty through the lenses of artists within a period of 21 days. Twenty-eight artists took part in the photography contest with 71 photos presented. The competition was difficult as many criteria were set. Sharpness, depth of field, lightning, aesthetic and visual criteria, deigned elements and principles, the impact, content and relevance of the topic were all graded. Mr. Teazaz Abraha, Mr. Afeworki Haile and Mr. Ghirmaiy kifle won 3rd, 2nd and 1st place respectively. The photos were then displayed at the exhibition opened by Minister Askalu Menkerios of Tourism. The guests appreciated the exhibition with images and urban planning of Asmara of the late 1800s to the current Asmara combined with photos of citizens of Asmara.

Events organized around World Tourism Day are the occasions for the association to raise awareness of the public towards Eritrea’s tourism potential and what it requires to develop. “Each year, we organize events such as visiting potential touristic sites or provide training as well as monitoring tourism related sector of activities to ensure that code of ethics are met”, said Mrs. Lidia Berhane, a member of the association within the sector of travel agencies. She is also a former airlines employee and now owns Lidia Travel Agency. Mrs. Lidia also mentioned the importance of promoting domestic tourism rather than only looking at international tourism. Certainly, many local citizens do not realise Eritrea’s tourism potential, as it seems common to see neglected historic buildings in Asmara or in Massawa for instance. However, promoting low-cost tourism for schools and ministries may be an opportunity for the local population to discover their own country. “People are willing and the youth are eager”, Mrs. Lidia added.

It is a collective work to promote tourism by ensuring that the provision of services such as sanitation, safety, transport, environment and health among others” said Mrs. Lia Gebreab, Head of the Ministry of Tourism – Central region branch, in her speech during the official ceremony. Surely, the mission of the Association in partnership with the Ministry is a work in progress and, as Mrs. Lia said in her speech, it requires a collective approach in providing basic services. Certainly, promoting tourism further in Eritrea would provide economic development and foreign currencies and contribute toward nation branding. As such the objective of the association, as written in its constitution (2013), is to “enable its members to have a collective strength and contribute in the economic development of the nation collectively”. In other words, promoting tourism as a tool of development would require strong leadership, participation of the host communities in terms of employment opportunities and the respect of socio-cultural authenticity. According to the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), sustainable tourism can contribute in cultural understanding and tolerance.

Tourism for development comes at a critical juncture in Eritrea’s development endeavours. The way forward is promoting it further through the media, better engagement on the Internet and international travelling information websites as well as through different types of tourism activities such as camping, backpacking, diving, visits of monasteries and ancient sites. Boosting tourism that respects national values and contributes to the development of local citizens is possible in Eritrea. Actually, the UNWTO believes that tourism can contribute to all three dimensions of sustainable development, economic, social and environmental. In fact, worldwide tourism generated about USD 1.5 trillion and the number of international tourist arrivals increased by 4.6% in 2015, equivalent to 1,184 million of tourists (UNWTO 2017)

Engaging further the youth who are eager to showcase their country through artwork, as Mr. Medhane and his friends, would also be one way of promoting tourism. Encouraging tourism would not only boost the economy but would also play a key part as a soft power by using cultural diplomacy to change the way the country is portrayed.

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