A Tourist Destination Unheard Of

Gunnar Garfors a Norwegian travel columnist and writer provided capitaleritrea news with his latest travel report from Eritrea. Gunnar also writes for travel magazine Terminal U. His latest trips and new countries visited: Eritrea, Comoros, Madagascar, Seychelles. Overall, Gunnar has visited over 50 countries a year and is on a mission to visit all 198 countries in the world. His wildest journey so far was a trip to five countries on five continents in a single day – a world record.

asmara street

Streets of Asmara

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

Asmara Beer

Eritrean 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.

Train Asmara Massawa

Train Asmara Massawa

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. - The current state of the town makes me cry. I refuse to destroy my memory of old Massawa. I will never go back, an old man told me.

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.

Dahlak Island Red Sea

Dahlak Island Red Sea

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

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.

Massawa Turkish

Turkish Style Building Massawa

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.

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 3000 Eritrean Nafka (pronounced naffa) 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?

Map of Eritrea

Map of Eritrea

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’t disappoint.

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  • Amabe

    Thanks a lot Gunnar.
    Your observation and you reporting is accurate. Some people, even those that call themselves a journalist report so much rubbish about Eritrea.

    As you correctly put it, Eritrea is peaceful and beautiful. It is also correct there was too much hassle at the airport. The good news is that a recent decree by the government, , effective from February 20, 2013 has changed the situation. You can now carry up to 10 000 USD cash and you do not need to declare it to customs. I hope more tourists find their way to this wonderful place.

    Amabe

  • Abraham

    Has anyone heard of new visa requirements for Eritreans without Eri Passport?

  • Helen Abraham

    I was in Eritrea around a year ago and I met this bubbly British tour guide and we started chatting. I asked her why there were only 3-4 people in her group and she said it should have been a group of 15 but 11 were denied visa. She then lowered her voice and said it happened on many times before. So there is no point having a big funfair article promoting tourism when getting entry visa appears to be a challenge.

    • http://garfors.com Gunnar Garfors

      The challenges related to getting a visa are mentioned in the article.

      Most people will be accepted if they keep trying. The most important thing is to apply early. Travelling in a group of five will anyhow let you blend in much better and experience more than if you are travelling in a group of 15.

  • Mikael

    Gunnar did you try the local liquor Asmara Zibib or did you only drink Beer. Next time you go you should try the liquor after a spicy injera meal – that always makes my day and gives me a good nights sleep during my holidays in Asmara.

    • http://garfors.com Gunnar Garfors

      I only tried beer and Soa (which I didn’t particularly like). Where can i get Zibib, and what does it taste?

  • Mikael

    It’s like greek ouzo – you tried Soa? Thats the worst drink ever! Asmara Zibib pic below.

    http://in.5thvillage.com/p/345070401167640520_242521616/

  • http://garfors.com Gunnar Garfors

    Haha, I hate such drinks, but thanks! :)

  • Sydney

    Gunnar:

    I enjoyed reading your trip report. It’s quite accurate. Eritrea is a beautiful country. I hope it will open up to tourists in the near future. There is so much more to the country than just Asmara, Massawa and the Dahlak Islands. The snorkeling is amazing by the way in the Dahlak Islands. I have seen brown dolphin schools, sea turtles, amazing corrals, ship wrecks and so many different kinds of colorful fish. Too many to name. Keren is also a beautiful provincial capital. My dream is to go back to Eritrea and drive from Assab to Massawa on a paved coastal road admiring the Southern Red Sea. Can you imagine what a beautiful ferry ride it would be to go from Massawa to Assab? The only thing better would be driving it. It would be analagous to the Great Ocean Road in Australia. The Danakil depression in the Southern Red Sea part of Eritrea also has some interesting features. It looks almost like Mars. Anyway, thanks for the trip report. Enjoyed reading it.

    Syd

    • http://garfors.com Gunnar Garfors

      Thanks for your comments! I would love to drive between Asmara and Assab. Next time…

    • Abraham Haile

      I did drive from Massawa to Assab and back (2004). Just like your imagination, except for the hot climate that tries to forces you to stay in the air conditioned SUV, countless white sand beaches with prestine water envites you to hop in and never leave. The road is partially paved and we all hope the whole strech will be paved very soon with the two resourts planned to be built soon.

  • jj

    Did You Spy for any counry?

    • Eritrean

      You psycho pfdj eritrean freek you! Thinking always cia, cia, cia!!!

  • Just curious

    Gunnar, did you have any ethical issues about traveling to Eritrea? Some might choose not to travel to a country where there is a one-government Dictator, and independent journalists have been locked in jail, with no trial, and no likelihood of being freed. Was it worth it, knowing what you know, and mentioned in the article, just to get a good coffee and drink beer?

    • http://garfors.com Gunnar Garfors

      I appreciate your feedback. I mentioned some of the serious issues on Eritrea in the article. Travelling there is not about supporting a dictatorship. I believe that getting information across can contribute to change and international reactions. Travelling there and writing about it is also about supporting the people of Eritrea. Not going there would mean one witness and one voice less.

    • vittorio

      You are right.
      Some might choose not to travel to countries where there is a dictatorship…that is why I do not travel to the USA, which I personally consider the biggest supporter of dictators in the world, making them dictators too

  • Sven

    Greetings Gunnar,

    I appreciated your travelogue on Eritrea. I was in Eritrea in the nineties. I was impressed with the beauty of the country and the people. Very friendly people indeed! I hope Eritrea will be open to outsiders so that the rest of the world also knows what we know about ERitrea.

  • Gere

    Thanks Gunnar for your quite and fair judgement of this beautiful nation.Visiting Eritrea means you have a good image of this nation. Unfortunately your Government has not been thinking about upgrading the bilateral relations, but now you can make an oppinion in Norway and try to convince your government to reach a new agreements in between two nations and fostering new investment opportunity in all sector.We need to see our friendship will improve in the near future.

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  • http://answersafrica.com/answers Daniel Gibbom

    Tried on one occasion and was denied so do not want to be denied again even though i heard from a friend that things are not the way they use to be again that they are now more lenient. I really hope so.

  • Abraham Haile

    Gunnar,
    As for the political situation in Eritrea, true eritreans belive that democracy is a process and cannot be seen as a stand alone institution leaving all other factors hold constant. Some gullibles think that you can introduce democracy overnight as if democracy is an IKEA furniture that you buy before noon, assemble in the afternoon and use it by the same evening.

  • NKENG

    i am looking forward to visit ERITREA in two weeks time from noe.
    i humbly wish to look for friends who will help me show me places
    any one to help me?

  • Dr. Prafull D. Kulkarni

    Wonderful update on a beautiful country! Any info on the prices, availability of essentials and the cost of living in Eritrea?

  • Mike Richards

    I was stationed in Asmara with the US Army in 1973. I have many wonderful memories of Asmara and Massawa from those days. Massawa was a booming port with lots of great restaurants and sights to see. The Army leased the Red Sea hotel then. You could fly an Air Ethiopia DC-3 from Asmara to Massawa. The plane would take off and then we would glide down to the coast. Lots of Italians in Ethiopia during those days like the Melotti family. The drive from Massawa to Asmara was very dangerous. Kidnappings and robbery. We traveled in 3-car convoys.

    The Dahlak islands were open to anybody who could get there. My friends and I would charter an Arab Dhow for the weekend. Total cost was $30 US plus fuel. We would spear fish on the reefs for dinner and sleep under the stars. The reefs were stunning and the sharks; Plentiful.

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