What makes Eritrea a unique country to travel to?
Eritrea is a poor East African country, the capital of which is Asmara. Formerly a province of Ethiopia, Eritrea became an independent country on May 24, 1993, following a 30-year struggle that culminated in an overwhelming referendum vote for independence. Tourism facilities are very limited.
Crime in Asmara has increased due to deteriorating economic conditions along with persistent food, water, and fuel shortages, and rapid price inflation. Travelers should exercise vigilance in their personal security and take safety precautions regarding the valuables they carry and areas they visit. Eritrean authorities have limited capacity to deter or investigate crime or prosecute perpetrators.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, if you purchase them you may also be breaking local law. Do not attempt to take advantage of street or black market exchange in foreign currency. It is illegal and there are extremely stiff penalties. Utilize government exchange at the airport, hotel, or bank.
While you are in Eritrea, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems are vastly different than our own. You may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport or identification with you. It is illegal to take pictures of government buildings. Driving under the influence could land you immediately in jail, as could a traffic accident, whether or not you are at fault. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States; for example you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods in Eritrea, even if you are not prosecuted in Eritrea.
Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in Eritrea, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going.
Persons violating Eritrea’s laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned. Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Eritrea are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.
Arrest notifications in Eritrea: Based on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, bilateral agreements with certain countries, and customary international law, if you are arrested in Eritrea, you have the option to request that the police, prison officials, or other authorities alert the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate of your arrest, and to have communications from you forwarded to the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. However, in Eritrea, contrary to the Vienna Convention, such requests are not generally granted.
Eritrea has no official language. Tigrinya, Arabic and English are all government, working languages. Tigrinya is spoken by highlanders, and is related to Tigre, spoken by people in the western and eastern lowlands. They use an ancient Ge'ez script. Like Arabic, they are both Semitic tongues. Arabic is widely used in commerce.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Medical facilities and physicians in Eritrea are limited. In 2010, the Eritrean government closed all private medical clinics and laboratories. Travelers should carry their own supplies of prescription drugs and preventative medicines because pharmaceuticals may be in short supply. Food and water-borne illnesses are very common among travelers, so drink only bottled or purified water and eat foods that are cooked or peeled. Malaria and dengue fever are serious risks to travelers in the lowlands of Eritrea, particularly during the rainy season (November to February). One of the worst dengue fever outbreaks in recent Eritrean history occurred during the winter of 2009-10 in Massawa. Asmara, because of its altitude, is generally considered free of these mosquito-borne illnesses. Travelers to the lowlands are urged to carry mosquito repellent and mosquito nets, especially during the rainy season.
Safety and Security
Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a border war from 1998-2000. United Nations peacekeepers patrolled the border until March 2008, when Government of Eritrea diesel fuel restrictions resulted in the peacekeepers’ withdrawal. Both Eritrea and Ethiopia maintain large military presences along the border and all border crossings into Ethiopia from Eritrea remain closed. U.S. citizens are strongly advised to avoid travel near the Eritrean-Ethiopian border and to the Southern Red Sea region, including the port of Assab, as there have been military tensions in these areas.
Landmines and unexploded ordnance remain a serious problem throughout the country. There are reports of accidents and incidents where vehicles and people occasionally detonate mines. Many detonations occurred on relatively well-traveled roads in and near the Gash Barka region of western Eritrea; subsequent investigations indicated that several mines were recently laid. In September 2011, press reported that a vehicle in Senafe, 60 miles south of Asmara, ran over a landmine, killing five persons and injuring the 34 others. Vast areas of the country still have not been certified free of mines and unexploded ordnance left over from both the 30-year war for independence and the subsequent 1998-2000 conflict with Ethiopia. U.S. citizens should avoid walking alone and hiking in riverbeds or areas that local government officials have not certified as safe.
Although Eritrea and Sudan have diplomatic relations, the procedures for crossing their common border are variable and subject to change. Overland travel between the two countries is dangerous and ill-advised. Travelers crossing from Eritrea to Sudan north and west of the Keren-Barentu road risk becoming victims of banditry, kidnapping, or insurgent activity. Numerous incidents have been reported since 2008, apparently involving insurgents or criminals in this area. The U.S. Embassy also received reports of sporadic bombings of vehicles and government facilities in the Gash Barka region near Sudan in 2007 and 2008. If travel near the Eritrean-Sudanese border is essential, travelers should consult both the Eritrean authorities and the U.S. Embassy in advance. Foreign travelers who wish to visit any area outside of Asmara must apply at least ten days in advance for a travel permit from the Eritrean government.
U.S. citizens are urged to avoid sailing off the coast of Eritrea. In August 2011, three separate incidents of piracy were reported off the Eritrean coast near the port of Assab. Multiple high-speed skiffs with armed persons onboard continue to attack merchant vessels. If transit around the Horn of Africa is necessary, it is strongly recommended that vessels travel in convoys, maintain good communications contact at all times, and follow the guidance provided by the Maritime Security Center – Horn of Africa (MSC-HOA). U.S. citizens should consult the Maritime Administration’s Horn of Africa Piracy page for information on maritime advisories, self-protection measures, and naval forces in the region.
U.S. citizens are also urged to avoid remote Eritrean islands, some which have Eritrean military facilities.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Eritrea, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. According to the World Health Organization’s first report on global road safety in September 2009, Eritrea’s roads are deadly. The roads between major cities (Asmara, Massawa, Mendefera, Dekemhare, Barentu, and Keren) are paved and in relatively good condition, though winding mountain roads do not generally have guardrails. Secondary roads and roads in remote areas are usually unpaved and in poor condition. U.S. citizens should avoid traveling on these roads, especially at night. Bad weather can also make the condition of poor roads worse. If you must take unpaved roads, check first with local government and village officials as new minefields continue to be discovered. Even in Asmara city, some road surfaces have deteriorated to dangerous conditions. Eritreans are found travelling on foot nearly everywhere due to lack of transportation, often dressed in dark clothing and in unlit areas at night, which creates unpredictable and dangerous situations on roads. Street lighting may not exist in some locations, and power outages continue to leave some neighborhoods in the dark. Speed limits may not be obeyed. Travelers should check with the Embassy of Eritrea regarding drivers’ license requirements prior to your traveling to Eritrea.
Landmines and unexploded ordnance litter the countryside in many areas, occasionally causing injuries and deaths. Although the UN conducted de-mining efforts until late 2007, evidence of new mines has been reported, particularly in areas near the Ethiopian border. All areas that are not well traveled are potentially dangerous due to live mines, especially north and west of Keren. There are also minefields near Massawa, Ghinda, Agordat, Barentu, south of Tessenae, Nakfa, Adi Keih, Arezza, Dekemhare, and in a roughly 40-kilometer (24.8 mile) wide region just west of the Eritrean-Ethiopian border between the Setit and Mereb Rivers.
Many Eritreans use inexpensive public transportation, especially bus service. Travelers should avoid taking buses due to extreme over-crowding. Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive in Asmara, but usually carry multiple passengers along pre-defined routes. If an empty taxi is available, a customer may request a "contract" taxi, which accepts no additional passengers, for a higher fixed price. Drivers should be aware of heavy and erratic pedestrian, livestock, and bicycle traffic obstructing vehicle flow. Children and the elderly sometimes wander into the path of moving traffic, as do slow, motorized carts. Elderly or disabled people may not always yield to faster moving traffic.