Dark Tourism in Eritrea

World Tourism Day, celebrated each year on 27th of September, is the global observance day dedicated to tourism and its contribution to the overall development efforts of countries across the globe. Recognizing the sector’s potential input towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goals, the World Tourism Day 2021 has made its focus on Tourism for Inclusive Growth.  


Usually, when talking about the tourist destination, it’s concentrated on the prehistoric sites, architecture, the landscape and the intangible cultural heritage of the country. Today the scale, penetration into different spheres of human activity and spatial boundlessness of tourism is increasing to cover all aspects of nature and human activity. In this article I am going to give a highlight on one particular area, often ignored or undermined, but constitute an important aspect of Eritrea’s tourism – i.e. The Dark Tourism.


Dark Tourism, also known as Thana Tourism, is the combination of death and tourism. Thana tourism is a hybrid word of thanatology and tourism. Dark tourism can include travel to a large variety of places of natural disasters, scenes of battles, military clashes and mass killings and the cemeteries holding the graves of the country’s martyrs, leaders and of popular personalities. Such sites have become major tourist destinations, globally. Eritrea has many such sites that represent the heroic acts made in the past that can become the core attraction of tourists.


Eritrea is a country emerged from warfare. Making the battlefield sites, war cemeteries and places of genocide perpetuated by colonizers can contribute to the introduction and representation of the past and can also play an important role in shaping perception and memory. The travel to places associated with war, death, and destruction has potential to play a large part in constructing a national image, and therefore should be considered as an important historical, cultural, political and economic reserve to be exploited for the development of the country. 


Making the sites associated with Eritrea’s war of liberation (1961-1991) and war for self-defense against TPLF aggression (1998-2000) attractive and accessible can enhance Eritrea’s tourism industry, and crowds of domestic and foreign tourists can travel to these sites. Eritrea’s wars of liberation and maintaining independence have a special significance for current generation and various visitors. First, it is the glorious war that the two super powers were involved and lost. USA and USSR aligned with imperial government of Haileslasie and the military regime of Mengistu Hailemariam to suppress the struggle of Eritrean people. Second, it is a war that is very recent in history, with many of its veterans and the multifaceted legacy of the war still surviving.


Dark tourism clearly plays a role in both a country’s economy and its image. The struggle for independence offers many interesting sites throughout the country, which are also interesting for research from different aspects, including tourism. Many of these battlefield sites have distinct conservational, educational and commemorative meaning, which must engender a degree of empathy between the visitor and the past. The thirty years of war for liberation has witnessed human tragedies, atrocities, and heroic acts which have become desired tourist destinations.  In order to strengthen the impression of past events, regular celebrations of events are taking place in these places. The annual anniversary of the liberation of Nakfa, Nadew operation in Afabet, Wuqaw operation in Emahmime, Fenqil operation in Massawa and Independence Day are potential tourist attraction places and events. Badme, Adi Begio, Egrimekel, Tsorona, Burie, Alitiena mereb and others were also raised into prominence since they witnessed a fierce and heroic resistance against TPLF war of aggression. Regardless of its relatively short age, they are considered as important cultural heritage sites that gives economic and historic advantages to Eritrea.        


Heritage is a fundamental resource and has always been a major tourism attraction. Eritrea is signatory to three major international conventions that have relevance to tourism and preservation of heritage. Eritrea is a signatory to the World Heritage Convention of 1972, the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. In addition to these international conventions, Eritrea enacted its own national heritage protection laws, titled: “proclamation no. 177/2015 Cultural and Natural Heritage Proclamation”. According to this proclamation “Cultural Heritage” means any tangible or intangible resource which is the product of human creativity and labor in the discernible historical times describing and witnessing to such creativity and labor because of its scientific, archeological, historical, cultural, artistic, architectural or aesthetic value or content ultimately bearing the identity and collective memory of peoples or communities. The numerous trenches and underground establishments constructed by the liberation fighters in Nakfa that stretched 180 kilometers are important cultural heritage of Eritrean revolution not only due to their role played during the war but also of their sophistication.  


Ashworth (2004) used the term “Atrocity heritage tourism” to represent “the heritage of atrocity concerns the deliberate infliction by people of suffering on people.”  Thus, Atrocity heritage tourism is the travel and visit to places associated with the suffering of people at the hands of other humans. In Eritrea, there are many places and events qualified to be identified as atrocity heritage tourism like prisons, graveyard and public executions. The infamous Nakura, Mariam Gbi and Expo are eligible places for dark tourism that were once used by Italians and the Derg as places of detention and persecution. Besides that, the annual commemoration of massacres in Sheb, Wekiduba, Asmara, Ona, Besikdira, Aqurdet (black Sunday), Omhajer (black Friday), Gejeret (black Saturday), Melebso (black Thursday 1967), Mendefera (black Saturday 1977),  Adi Ibrahim, Hirghigo and so on are sites of, and memorials to, the death of innocent people. Encouraging visitation to the places where tragedies or historically noteworthy death has enormous significance to the national economy and construction of national memory.


For Eritreans, visitation to dark tourism sites can be motivated by various reasons including the desire to visit the place where family members died or out of curiosity to see the order of events. In Eritrea it’s common for families of the martyrs to travel to the place of martyrdom of their loved once. I personally have visited to Digsa and Emba Soira to see the place where two of my cousins had fallen in 1977 and 2000 fighting against the Derg and TPLF respectively. Many veteran liberation fighters used to go to places where they fought, wounded and where their comrades in arms had fallen. Morbid curiosity, remembrance and empathy, contemplation and self-discovery are some of the reasons behind pushing someone to visit to the dark tourism sites.


In addition, in Eritrea there many Patriots Cemetery reserved for fallen heroes and heroines. These burial sites are not only places where the dead soldiers are buried but they are also places where the living can communicate with them. The World Heritage List of the UNESCO, which contains sites of outstanding universal value, includes some cemeteries. The cemeteries of fallen Eritrean soldiers must therefore be designed in a way that provokes deep emotional engagement and magnificence.  


To conclude, visiting sites associated with Eritrea’s war of liberation and war of resistance against TPLF aggression can constitute as a vibrant part of Eritrea’s tourism industry. In order to harvest the desired outcome, concerned bodies of the government must work towards the promotion and development of dark tourism.

Simon Woldemichael

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