Saturday, 22 September 2012

Eritrea - Welcome to the Red Sea Riviera!

As it will soon be World Tourism day, on the 27th of September, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to have a look at how tourism works in an African country like Eritrea.  One of the main reasons I got interested in Eritrea is because my Best Aussie Mate (BAM, of Walking the Chesters fame) went there for her holidays last year.  And she absolutely loved it! 

Visit Eritrea

As a tourist destination, Eritrea has a lot to offer - fantastic mountain scenery, friendly people, great food, diving in the Red Sea, the Art Deco glamour of Asmara, the list goes on . . .  Yet it's still an unusual tourist destination for your average European - a lot of Eritrea's tourism is made up of 'returnees', the generations of Eritreans who left during the war and grew up in Sweden, the United States or Canada.  Unfortunately, the visa system and money conversion is overly bureaucratic and it's still relatively expensive to get there. 

The age-old lure of the 'Land on the Red Sea'

View of Keren by 10b travelling
The name 'Eritrea' is believed to come from the Greek word ερυθρός (erythros) meaning 'red' or 'vermilion'.  This could be due to the reddish coloured 'sea sawdust' in the Red Sea.  I guess, Eritrea literally means 'the land on the Red Sea.'  Even before the Greeks, travellers were lured to this part of Africa, as exotic a destination in ancient times as it is today.  Many people believe that Eritrea was the location of the mythical Land of Punt, a country of great wealth and splendour. 

Tourism in the 21st century

It's difficult to ignore the pervasive influence of tourism in our globalised societies of the early 21st century.  I've experienced quite different attitudes to the importance of tourism in the various countries I've lived in: Thailand, where tourism is an important source of income, embraced mass tourism at a very early stage - Uzbekistan has a small, but growing tourism industry, focusing on the Silk Road that runs through Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand - Russia, which is probably one of the most exciting tourist destinations in the world, barely seems to capitalise on its potential income from tourism, spending a paltry amount of money promoting itself, something equivalent to that spent by much smaller countries, like Slovenia.  By contrast, England, with all of its history, idyllic villages and high-quality offer in terms of accommodation and dining, understands the value of tourism and makes a great effort to sustain its reputation as a tourist destination. 

So where are the tourist hotspots?

Women returning from market by 10b travelling
As part of my research for this blog, I spent some time exploring the wealth of information on the (UNWTO) World Tourism Organisation's website.  They publish really interesting reports, the most accessible of which is the UNWTO Tourism Highlights 2012 report (which actually reports on 2011). The overall stats are pretty staggering - despite all of the natural disasters, wars and revolutions, a record 983 million people travelled as international tourists in 2011.  It's expected that the number of tourists will pass the 1 billion mark in 2012.

Perhaps not surprisingly, France tops the list, as a tourist destination with almost 80 million visitors in 2011.  The second most popular tourist destination was the United States, followed by China, Spain and Italy.  Europe dominates the world travel stats with 51% of the world pie in 2011, compared to 22% of tourists visiting Asia and the Pacific and a mere 5% of tourists visiting Africa.  In money terms, there is also a big difference between tourist revenue in Europe ($463 billion in 2011) and Africa ($33 billion in 2011). 

Tourism in Africa

Pot of Shiro by 10b travelling
Not all data for Africa had been collected when this report was published, but looking at the 2010 stats, it's clear to see that Morocco, South Africa and Tunisia are the key players in terms of African tourism (Egypt is included in the Middle East region by UNWTO).   Eritrea had around 80,000 foreign tourists in 2010, which is better than a lot of Africa countries, but still quite low and the equivalent to the number of tourists who visited Belarus in that same year, not to mention 1/1000th of the figure that visited France!  Of course, it helps that the main 'consumers' of tourism are from Europe, China or the United States and the number of Africans travelling as tourists is relatively low. 

One of Africa's main success stories is Cape Verde which saw a 27% growth in tourist numbers in 2011.  Algeria and Madagascar are also experiencing tourist growth, but countries like Tunisia have suffered because of political instability - Tunisia experienced a 31% drop in the number of arrivals in 2011.

Popular destinations

If you're interested, the other 'growing' destinations around the world are: San Marino and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Europe), Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand (Asia and the Pacific), Panama, Cuba and Barbados (the Americas).  The picture in the Middle East has been pretty grim for the tourism industry, with most countries experiencing a significant drop in numbers: Syria (-41%), Egypt (-32%), Lebanon (-24%).  Even peaceful countries like Jordan experienced a drop (-13%).  On the other hand, Saudi Arabia experienced a 60% growth in tourist numbers during 2011!

Is global tourism sustainable?

Despite the challenges posed by political instability, it feels as though the world's tourist industry is struggling to cope with the steadily increasing numbers of tourists.  Countries like Russia, China and India have seen a significant amount of their citizens holidaying abroad and the tourist infrastructure in some popular destinations is creaking at the seams.  The UNWTO does a lot of work on making tourism sustainable.  I guess, by its very nature, tourism is not incredibly eco-friendly; long-haul flights, food and water wastage - nevertheless, sustainable tourism is becoming very popular, certainly amongst a travelling public that is increasingly eco-conscious

Are we right to travel?

Massawa architecture by 10b travelling
Despite the many ills of the tourist industry, it's undeniable that tourism provides employment (235 million jobs worldwide) and revenue (1,030 billion per annum) that is more likely to end up in the local economy, than in the pockets of the state.  One of UNWTO's aims is to 'advance tourism's contribution to poverty reduction and development'. 

Although, I'm travelling from the safety of my armchair, for the purposes of this blog, I do, occasionally, appreciate the benefits of actual travel.  I've visited countries my parents would never dream of going to and my grandparents would have never even heard of.  Despite concerns about the environment and the impact of unfettered tourist development, I recognise that having had the opportunity to travel and, more importantly, to live abroad, has changed me as a person and given me a much wider world-view than the one I grew up with. 

And, of course, I'd love to visit Eritrea some day - I hope Eritrea (and Africa generally) opens up more as a tourist destination, so Eritreans can claim a bigger slice of the international tourist revenue pie!

Image credits:

For this blog post, I'd like to highlight the work of flickr member 10b travelling aka Carsten ten Brink.   Carsten is a painter, print-maker, photographer and part-time architect!  He has a wonderful collection of photographs from around the world, which you can see on his flickr photostream or on his website. Thanks to Carsten for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license!
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