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Thursday, 13 July, 2000, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
Ancient Axum profits from peace
Kassahun Abraha in his shop
Kassahun Abraha: Business was hit by the war
By Nita Bhalla in Axum

Ethiopia's economy has suffered as a result of the two-year conflict with Eritrea, and the once thriving tourism industry is no exception.

The war has deterred visitors from coming to the country and because of security reasons, flights from Addis Ababa to some of the most popular tourist destinations were suspended.

But now that a cessation of hostilities agreement has been signed by both countries, the Ministry of Defence has given the go-ahead for flights to resume to some of the most historic destinations, including the ancient city of Axum.

Dating back more than 3,000 years, the city was the hub of the Axumite Empire, which dominated the vital cross-roads of Africa and Asia for almost a thousand years.

The legendary Queen of Saba - generally known in English as Sheba - is said to have made it her capital 1,000 years before Christ.

Axum is also the spiritual home of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and - Ethiopian Christians believe - the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, which contains the Ten Commandments.

Shops closed

With such a history, it's no wonder that hundreds of tourists used to flock here weekly. But with the town situated so close to the border with Eritrea, the conflict has destroyed this once booming industry.

Obelisks in Axum
Ancient obelisks dominate the skyline
In 1996 and 1997, the number of visitors to Axum per year was growing by 27% but in 1998, when the war began, the number decreased by 80%.

Tadele Assefa, head of the economic department for the central zone of Tigray, says that many business, which were dependent on tourists, have been collapsed.

"Before the war, there were many tourists and therefore a lot of business. But now this has decreased. All the souvenir shops have shut down," he says.

"We also have so many hotels and restaurants here in Axum, but they do not function now. They used to benefit from the tourists, but now they are dead."

There were over 100 souvenir shops in this city, which has a population of approximately 35,000.

Jobs lost

Kassahun Abraha owns a souvenir shop in Axum which sells ancient relics, wood carvings and silver jewellery. He says before the war, business was very good, as scheduled flights brought in up to to 100 tourists each day.

Fragment of obelisk
A fallen obelisk displays fine stone carving
"The war has had a huge impact not only for me, but for other business men like me. We have nothing now," he told me.

"I was dependent on the shop. I have now been forced to depend on my family and also take loans from other people. It's been very hard but I believe that this has been a just war, unfortunately people in Axum have suffered."

But it's not only the merchants who have suffered. Tesfai, 22, used to be one of the official guides in Axum. When the war began, he left his job and began working for Ethiopian Telecommunications.

"I loved being a tour guide and I know all the history of the city," he says.

"I hope that now the war is over, tourists will start returning to Axum and I can resume my old job.

"We really need the revenue, which tourism brings into the city," he says.

Learning languages

But the benefits of tourism aren't just economic. Many of the young children speak fluent English. When asked where they learnt it, they said from the foreigners who used to visit.

Pool in Axum
The Queen of Sheba is reputed to have bathed here
"I can speak English, Italian, Spanish and a little French!", boasted Mulugeta, 12, who wants to be a tour guide when he is older.

But there is hope for that the industry can be revived again. A cessation of hostilities agreement was signed by both sides on 18 June, and with no reports of fighting on the border, the tourism commissioner, Yusuf Abdullahi Sukkar, is hopeful.

"Tourism thrives on peace. Now that we have a peaceful situation, we hope that the tour operators in the tourism-generating countries, would look at Ethiopia again as a tourism destination", he says.

Commissioner Yusuf is confident that Ethiopia is in the first steps of returning to normality after the war.

"Because of the war and incorrect travel advisories by some countries, many tour operators took out Ethiopia from their brochures. It would normally take another season for them to re-instate us as a destination in their brochures.

But I am sure that quite a few tourists will be coming next season, in September and October," says the commissioner.

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See also:

12 Jun 00 | Africa
Ethiopia-Eritrea peace plan
10 Jul 00 | Africa
De-mining in the Horn
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