September 15, 2013

Eritrea: A Tourist Destination Unheard of

Eritrea: A Tourist Destination Unheard of

A trip to Eritrea is not complete without a trip to the 1500 year old coastal town - Massawa
by Gunnar Garfors | The lack of positive news stories about Eritrea should not stop you from travelling there. Rather the contrary, Gunnar Garfors reports. He celebrated New Year’s Eve in the Horn of Africa and experienced hospitality rarely seen.

Eritrea as a tourist destination is virtually unheard of. Except for some adventurous Italian tourist groups, thanks to the countries’ shared colonial past. But travelers who rule out a trip to Eritrea are missing out. The architecture of Asmara, the capital, is art deco to the extreme. And well preserved too.

Take away the modern vehicles, and it is like travelling back to the 1930s. Add the bright colours, the old styled shop signs and the thousands of trees that make most central streets into alleys, and you are in motif heaven. Architects and photographers who never visit should reconsider their careers.

The markets of the town are also worth a visit, so are the plentiful jewellery shops. They sell gold and silver at prices unheard of in Europe. Plane buffs and fans of odd building shapes should check out the Fiat Tagliero building, designed by Italian architect Giuseppe Pettazzi and completed in 1937. It may be the building in the world that most resemblances an airplane, having 15 meter wide “wings.” It used to be a petrol station, but is now only used for storage.

The low number of tourists is in itself an attraction to many. Friends of mine were invited to join my trip, but politely declined.  Some of them cited security issues. I have however rarely felt safer anywhere, and I repeatedly walked throughout town alone in the middle of the night.

ALWAYS UP FOR A BEER  

The nightlife is not to be frowned upon either. Eritreans love their beer which is named after their capital. The only problem is that the bars usually run out around midnight. The brewery just cannot cope with the demand. Not surprisingly so. The consumers of it certainly know how to party. Do expect to stay out until 4 or 5 on weekends if you want to keep up with the locals.

Eritreans are very friendly, and you may be invited to someone’s home for dinner or even for accommodation. I got to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the house of a diplomat, eating traditional chicken, beef, lentils and bread. I was invited there by Asmara.

She is Eritrean, but now lives in Sweden. She still visits as often as she can. The dinner was followed by a New Year’s party in a nightclub. There were no fireworks to watch at midnight, but the DJ was considerate enough to play firework soundtracks. Like home. Almost. I was nevertheless having a great time. After all, I was drinking  Asmara with Asmara in Asmara.

MASSAWA AND DAHLAK 

Eritrea is more than Asmara, though. Much more. Massawa, for instance. The main port of Eritrea is only 110 kilometres from Asmara, but as Asmara is 2400 meters above sea level, the roads are not up to Western standards, and you should expect to use between 3 or 4 hours by bus. I met a local who claimed to drive it in 1 hour and 45 minutes, but he was sporting a Michael Schumacher key ring.

One of the 5-star hotels in Massawa – the Grand Dahlak Hotel

One of the 5-star hotels in Massawa – the Grand Dahlak Hotel

A trip to Eritrea is not complete without a trip to the 1500 year old town, although a visit to the old part of town may cause mixed feelings. Many of the buildings are in ruins or were damaged in the civil war, but you can still see the beauty and persistent character of many of them.

A surprising number of them are inhabited by locals who are making the most out of it, and you will find a few active stalls in the market. Some of those who remember earlier times with a thriving market and buildings without the wounds from gun shots and explosions.

To me, as a first timer in Eritrea, the old town gave a good insight in how it used to be, yet clearly demonstrated how fierce the battles must have been. At night, the town wakes up. A dozens of bars and nightclubs appear in the strangest of places, even in buildings you would swear could not be in use.

The buildings look like dark battered ghosts from the past with their old, battered signs, yet opening up after dark with the music that comes out acting as a memory of ‘good, old times.’ Although such an expression doesn’t really fit for a country that has fought for independence so long and that finally got it after yet another deadly civil war. Drinking in a bombed out and slowly recovering town will make even the toughest individuals ponder about life.

Massawa also boasts some great beaches. Gurgusum Beach is the most famous and where you stand good chances of finding a party at night. Boating and water sports is also an attractive holiday option.

Dahlak islands off the coast are a must visit if your budget can cope. A boat trip there requires a permit, and the packages are very expensive.

The turquoise water, the remoteness and total feel of calm will be a memory for life though. A US investment group loved the islands so much that they even tried to buy them. Luckily they didn’t succeed. Their plans included opening resorts, casinos and gambling joints to compete with Macao and the like. That would have been a truly lost paradise.

VISA AND ENTRY 

 

A Romanesque style cathedral in the centre of the city

A Romanesque style cathedral in the centre of the city

Entering Eritrea is not a walk in the park. You should set aside at least 6 weeks in order to get your visa. And be careful to fill out every little detail on the application form, or risk being declined a visa without much of an explanation. I was denied entry on my first attempt. My passport was returned by mail with a post it note attached. It read: “Hellow! Visa denied.” A second try with an explanatory letter accompanying my passport and visa application, all sent way in advance of my trip was however successful.

The borders to both Ethiopia and Djibouti are closed, while the border crossing from Sudan may put your diplomatic skills to the test. Or will prove to be a point of a very certain return.

The only relatively straight forward point of entry is through Asmara International Airport. It is currently Eritrea’s only international one, although there are plans to open up international flights to Massawa (MSW) too. Information screens in ASM show you all 29 departures throughout a week. That makes the airport look busier than it is. Cairo is the most popular destination with 7 flights while there are 6 to Dubai.

The only European destination is Frankfurt with 3 weekly flights.  To arrive at the airport isn’t for the restless, though. To get stamp in your passport isn’t anything out of the extraordinary, but add a second checkpoint, declaration of all your money (regardless of currency) and having your luggage searched make time add up. Are you planning to take a laptop? You will have to register it before being able to leave the airport. And that may not be too easy either. The town centre is 6 kilometres away, but if you fly in late, there will be no buses. That is a fact many taxi drivers will take full advantage of. I refused to be ripped off, and ended up walking to town.

MONEY MATTERS 

You need to plan carefully when it comes to cash. The money declaration form you have to fill out upon arrival will be updated by the employees of the currency exchange shops for every exchange that you perform. [Editor’s note:  The country adopts a complete liberalization of foreign exchange rules as of this month. Visitors no longer need to declare foreign cash if not exceed US $10,000. Click to read the proclamation here ]

Do not try to outsmart anyone. You face intensive questioning or worse if custom officers find that money is missing or have suddenly appeared.

You may withdraw money from a Visa or Mastercard at Himbol, the only official currency exchange shops, but do note that you will not be able to change more than 3,000 Eritrean Nafka  back to USD or Euro if you withdraw too much. Such counter exchange can also only take place at the main Himbol shop on Harnet Ave, despite the presence of a currency exchange at the airport. Some hotels are also allowed to exchange money.

WHY NOT TO GO

To counter common myth, I will repeat myself; Eritrea is a very safe tourist destination. But there may still be some reasons you may choose not to go.

There is only one legal political party in the country. The name of it is exactly what it is not. “The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).” Why bother with such a name, though? You won’t fool anyone. Then again, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Democratic Republic of the Congo may have inspired Isaias Afewerki and his people. He has held the presidential chair since independence in 1993. Did anyone say fresh blood?

Have you heard about Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index? Neither have Eritreans. The country was placed as number 179 out of 179 at the last count in 2012. And yes, North Korea is also on that list (number 178). There are no privately owned media in Eritrea.

Internet is extremely slow, but none of the major foreign web sites seemed to be blocked. There are many internet cafes in Asmara, but most of them are used for gaming and printing. Some of the hotels have Wi-Fi available, but access is again painfully slow. Then again, if the country is so great, who needs internet, a friend of mine thoughtfully asked.

And finally, you will have to register with the Ministry of Tourism to leave Asmara. It isn’t too inconvenient, it will take five minutes to fill out the form and then another 4-5 hours to wait for your stamped papers. The office is also centrally located, just across the street from the cathedral. The main issue is of principal character. You are only allowed to visit a few cities and areas of the country. You may travel to these on your own, but not any further.

These reasons didn’t stop me. I have an urge to see for myself, and Eritrea didn’tD disappoint.

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