he long shadow of war continues to loom over Tigray as its people work to rebuild from devastating conflict. The devastation caused by the two-year war in Tigray has left an indelible mark on both the people and the local economy. While accurate death tolls remain elusive, one estimate suggests combat casualties may have numbered in the tens of thousands. Further grief comes in the form of over 16,000 injured ex-fighters now require medical support to cope with lasting disabilities.
Beyond the massive human costs, the social and financial wounds run deep. Tigray’s once-vibrant tourism industry – a source of great pride for locals –lays in ruins.
But the sector was decimated as conflicts silenced Tigray’s natural beauty, particularly along historically rich destinations like Aksum and the Geralta Mountains in Hawzen. Prior to fighting, destinations like Geralta Mountains and historic Aksum drew around 90,000 visitors annually, fueling local livelihoods. That lively atmosphere has now been replaced by a somber new activity: post-war hiking and camping among the ruins.
In its heyday, tourists could choose from four lodges in Tigray catering to their every need: the Garalta Lodge inHawzen, Korkor Lodge in nearby Megab, Agoro Lodge in Adigrat, and the luxury Atranos Fantasy Hotel & Spa in Aksum. Tragedy has since forced all but the Atranos to permanently close their doors in the face of violence and unrest.
While a major loss, local guides found inspiration in adversity – devising new ways to showcase Tigray’s natural beauty even in its battered state.
While visitor numbers are a small fraction of pre-war levels, Aregawi Hagos – owner of Gheralta Trekking Tours and a veteran Geralta guide – sees reason for optimism. He notes the few tourists returning to Tigray increasingly prefer multi-day camping trips over lodge stays. This allows for extended exploration of natural treasures like Geralta.
Though Aregawi once hosted 30-50 tourists daily during peak season, current weekly rates hover around 5-10. Still, he calls this a sign that recovery has begun.
Aregawi aims to expand the frontiers of adventure tourism. His ambitious plan envisions extending the allure of camping to untapped gems like the awe-inspiring Adwa Mountains and the picturesque Maichew in southern Tigray, home to Mount EmbaAlaje, the region’s highest peak.
However, the realization of this grand vision hinges on a crucial factor—the repair and reopening of Aksum Airport, which suffered significant damage during the intense conflict of 2020.
Currently, eager tourists seeking the wonders of Aksum must make do with an inconvenient workaround. They have to touch down at Shire Airport, situated 67 kilometers away, and embark on a road trip to reach their desired destination—a detour that poses a significant hurdle to the revival of tourism in the area, as Aregawi explained.
Yet, challenges abound beyond mere logistics.
Safety concerns loom large on the minds of foreign tour companies, who are discouraged by the cautionary advisories issued by embassies and governments, wary of potential security risks. To win back the trust of visitors and convince embassies to lift travel restrictions, Aregawi proposes a solution—a dedicated program spearheaded by the Ethiopian government that focuses on reopening and rebranding tourism in Tigray. He believes such an initiative would provide the much-needed safety reassurances for future adventurers.
However, interdependence proves to be a double-edged sword in Tigray’s quest for tourism recovery.
Travelers, eager to explore the diverse landscapes of the region, often desire multi-region itineraries, encompassing not only Tigray but also neighboring Afar and Amhara. The legendary Lalibela Rock-Hewn Churches in Amhara, in particular, hold immense allure.
Unfortunately, bureaucratic hurdles and a lack of cooperation between Tigray and Afar authorities impede the seamless flow of these enchanting journeys.
Presently, tourists face the frustration of being unable to directly enter Afar from Tigray, compelled instead to make a detour to Semera, the regional capital, before retracing their steps to access Afar’s captivating destinations. This unnecessary inconvenience, absent prior to the war, acts as an unfortunate chokehold on the potential of tourism in Tigray.
As if the challenges weren’t daunting enough, Tigray has endured the harsh aftermath of the devastating conflict—a reality that has left the region grappling with the dire consequences of drought and food shortages.
The scarcity of rain, labor, and fertilizers has dealt a severe blow to crop production, triggering a widespread drought that strangles agricultural life. To compound the misery, aid distribution by prominent organizations like USAID and the UN World Food Program came to a grinding halt across Ethiopia, including Tigray, from mid-March to mid-November 2023 due to rampant theft of humanitarian assistance.
This unfortunate convergence of circumstances has plunged certain parts of the region into the depths of acute food insecurity, with the specter of famine haunting the afflicted communities.
The issue of famine in Tigray has ignited a contentious debate, escalating tensions between the Tigray Interim Administration and the federal government.
While the regional administration has declared the presence of an ongoing famine and issued impassioned appeals for immediate support from the Ethiopian government and the international community, the federal government remains resolute in its denial, accusing the Interim of exploiting the situation for political gain.
This clash of perspectives further exacerbates the challenges faced by Tigray’s population in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.
Amidst the trials and tribulations, January in Tigray emerges as a month of contrasts—a tapestry woven with joyous wedding celebrations and solemn ‘Tezkar’ feasts commemorating the departed.
As the grand Lent season approaches, couples exchange vows amidst grand gatherings, where opulent celebrations become a common sight, and crowds unite to revel in the festivities. However, January also brings forth the observance of Tezkar—a poignant feast that pays homage to the deceased.
These ceremonies, marked by their elaborate rituals and profound significance, offer a glimpse into the rich traditions and customs that shape the spirit of Tigray during this month.
The regional administration has initiated a consultative approach to address the impact on traditional celebrations. The aim is to encourage communities to consider more modest gatherings for weddings and Tezkar feasts, without imposing legal restrictions. While progress has been made in some areas, others continue to hold large events, showcasing the diverse responses to this initiative.
Hawzen Woreda emerges as a shining example of success in curbing extravagant celebrations. Thanks to a proactive approach led by Woreda administrator Weldegiorgis Gebrekidan, the community has come together to prioritize dialogue and engagement.
Through open discussions involving residents, religious leaders, and Woreda officials, a shared understanding of the challenges posed by drought and food insecurity has been achieved, leading to a collective commitment to action, Weldegiorgis emphasized.
He says that inclusive decision-making has been key to their achievements. Despite a few attempts to organize large Tezkar feasts, concerted efforts from Woreda officials and religious leaders have successfully prevented them.
The community’s refusal to attend these events, according to the Admin, forced insisting individuals to abandon the festivities, sending a clear message.
Notably, excess food and drink intended for these gatherings were redirected to churches for distribution among those in need.
Hawzen Woreda, like many parts of Tigray, has faced the hardships brought about by drought. Factors such as insufficient rainfall, delayed rains, mixed precipitation, and labor shortages have affected crop production and productivity, Weldegiyorgis said. Furthermore, the aftermath of the war has created challenges, including high youth unemployment, which has contributed to social issues like alcoholism, gambling, and crime.
Weldegiorgis expresses hope that the regional and federal governments provide financial support and opportunities to empower the youth and address these pressing concerns.
In neighboring Tsaeda-EmbaWereda, the efforts to discourage large celebrations have faced more resistance. Despite the agreement, some communities continue to hold them. While religious leaders have chosen not to attend, they have been unable to completely prevent these gatherings.
The impact of the war has had a significant toll on government employees in Tigray, particularly teachers who have endured months without pay, some for 17 months, causing a significant economic hardship. Their plight has prompted petitions to the regional and federal authorities, urging them to address the outstanding salaries, consider salary increases, reduce income tax rates, and provide housing allowances.
Unfortunately, their pleas for assistance have yet to receive a favorable response, leaving educators disheartened. “The government has turned a blind eye, it is heartbreaking,” said Teklay Belay, a teacher and head of Shire Teachers’ Association.
Teachers in Shire took to the streets on December 14th, raising their voices and demanding unpaid salaries. The demonstrations shed light on the harsh realities faced by educators without income.
Teklay recalls members taking high interest loans or even begging to make ends meet and support their families, resulting in substantial debt.
The compounding issues of inflation and high living costs, particularly in food and housing, have further exacerbated the challenges faced by teachers.
For instance, Teklay, earning a net salary of 8,000 Birr, pays 5,000 Birr for rent alone
Recognizing the urgency to address these hardships, the Shire Teachers’ Association is actively exploring solutions. One such initiative involves establishing a consumer association, aimed at purchasing food items in bulk and offering them to teachers at reduced prices, alleviating some of the financial strain.
The situation is even more dire for teachers with children in private schools. Monthly fees, once at a reasonable 300 birr, have skyrocketed to 800-1,000 birr in the current circumstances. This sudden hike has created an immense burden on both teachers and parents. In fact, the strain has become so overwhelming that numerous teachers have made the difficult decision to resign, according to Teklay.
Teklay highlighted a single school where 13 teachers recently quit, depicting the severity of the issue and its impact on the education system in Shire
Another devastating consequence of the war in Tigray is the mass migration of young people who are seeking better opportunities elsewhere.
The war has left a trail of devastation, crippling businesses, factories, and infrastructure, resulting in alarming levels of unemployment. The absence of job prospects, coupled with limited investments and a lack of loan opportunities, has left the youth with few viable options.
Haysh Subagadis, the head of the Tigray Youth Affairs Bureau, noted that the construction sector, once a major source of employment, has come to a standstill.
The situation is further exacerbated by banks that have not resumed loan processing and microfinance institutions lacking funds to lend, as they too have been victims of the war, according to Haysh.
Unemployment, already at a concerning 19 percent before the conflict, has skyrocketed to a staggering 81 percent, pushing the youth towards migration. Haysh emphasized that drought has also played a significant role, intensifying the desperation among young people.
According to an assessment by the Bureau, over 10,000 individuals have fled from Tigray’s eastern zone since November 2022. Saudi Arabia has emerged as the top destination, followed by Europe via Libya and South Africa, along with other southeastern African countries.
While the Bureau actively combats human traffickers, Haysh acknowledges that the real solution lies in creating much-needed job opportunities for Tigray’s youth.
The challenges faced by educators and the mass migration of young people underscore the urgency for regional and federal authorities to prioritize job creation and investment in the region, ensuring that Tigray’s youth have viable prospects within their homeland.