Eritrea’s Picturesque Capital is Now a World Heritage Site

Asmara inscribed on UNESCO World Heritage site list
Now that the entire Asmara city is a World Heritage site, how serious the Eritrean government can take significant steps to capitalize on this unique UNESCO status and encourage tourism is the next big question. (Photo: Cinema Roma in Asmara. The city is sometimes called “La Piccola Roma” or “Little Rome”. ©Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)

BY TOM GARDNER | QUARTZ AFRICA

In 1996 a German architecture firm proposed razing historic buildings in the centre of Asmara, one of Africa’s most beautiful cities, to make way for glass high-rises. Eritreans, who are deeply proud of their capital’s Italian-era modernist architecture, began to worry that their hard-fought heritage was under threat.



So began a movement to preserve the city’s heritage which culminated on July 8 with the much-anticipated announcement that Asmara had been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Eritreans now hope World Heritage status for their capital will put [their country] on the tourist map. The country is blessed with a sparkling Red Sea coastline but it is Asmara’s architecture—a pristinely preserved collection of Art Deco, Rationalist and Futurist gems that earned it the nickname “Little Rome”—that really makes Eritrea stand out.

A Fiat drives along a street in Eritrea’s capital Asmara. (Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)

Long time Eritrea watchers are hopeful the inclusion of Asmara on the World Heritage list will be a cultural and economic fillip to the city. This is much needed: Eritrea has one of lowest tourist arrival figures of any country in the world, despite its immense potential and location. Official government figures estimated 107,000 visitors in 2011[…].

The decision to nominate Asmara is evidence of the [government’s] tentative re-engagement with the outside world, after more than a decade of self-imposed isolation and, since 2009, UN-imposed sanctions.

“For some time, the government has been seeking international recognition in whatever forums are available,” notes Dan Connell, a visiting scholar at Boston University’s African Studies Centre. The UNESCO bid began life as a project led by outsiders and local enthusiasts and was then adopted by the government partly as a means to rebrand the country. Last year it passed a landmark heritage bill to help it meet UNESCO requirements.

The Cinema Impero building in Asmara (Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)


But whether the Eritrean government can really capitalize on Asmara’s UNESCO status is another question. One Asmara-based foreign ambassador notes that while the government put its weight behind the bid it has so far failed to take full advantage of the occasion. No foreign journalists were invited to the city to cover the celebrations. For potential foreign visitors there are no international hotels. Tourist visas are easier to come by than they might have been in the past but travelling around much of the country requires permits.

The famous Fiat Tagliero building designed by the Italian architect Giuseppe Pettazzi in a futuristic style and completed in 1938.

Eritrea is not the only country in Africa keen to harness the international recognition conferred by UNESCO status. Sites in Angola and South Africa were also inscribed this year.

Neighbouring Ethiopia has long benefitted from having more World Heritage sites than any other African country: ten, including the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. The government aims to have a further fourteen on the list by 2020, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

The Central Post Office is seen in Eritrea’s capital Asmara. (Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)

Unlike Eritrea, though, Ethiopia has taken significant steps to encourage tourism. Measures such as tax-free imports for hotels have helped trigger a hotel construction boom. Between 2015 and 2016 nearly one million tourists flooded into the country, generating nearly a million jobs and over $2 billion in revenue, according to the World Bank.

The Catholic Cathedral in the capital, Asmara, (Reuters/Ed Harris/File)

The Eritrean government, on the other hand, has “never been serious with its ‘tourism’ strategies—something they have tried to launch since the early 1990s,” notes Kjetil Tronvoll of Bjorknes University College.

Now might be the time for Eritrea to take a leaf out of its neighbor’s book.

14 thoughts on “Eritrea’s Picturesque Capital is Now a World Heritage Site

  1. Oh very telling the author chose of all foreign personalities who have some form of acquaintance with Eritrea those two individuals D. Connel as a regime change activist and Connel´s associate Mr. Tronvoll a renowned enemy of Eritrea. He has been producing and being diligently sited by every Western journalist for his quasi-research papers on Eritrea though he has never visited Eritrea the last ten years. Those two individuals has neither the knowledge nor the expertise on Eritrea what so ever, if they have any, it is the information on public domain and they merely copy and paste every time they were asked to produce a junky report on Eritrea.. They are actually the last persons to have a comment on Eritrean matters specifically on this very issue of Asmaras inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage site.

    1. Right to the point. If D. Connel and his associates (be a western or eritrean) appear as expertise and political analyst regarding Eritrea in any Article or TV show as a true and positive reference, then that tells the reader and the viewer how skewed, distorted, and misinformed the Article, Author and Actors are.

    2. I guess it’s the 4 billion dollars Eritrea gained from tourism that is keeping them awake. Here, of course, based on the numbers they gave.

  2. ኔቲኦም/ነቲአን ጄጓኑ ቤጃ ህዝቦምን ሃጌሮምን ዝወዴቁ/ዝወዴቃ፡ዝሴንከሉ/ዝሰንከላ፡ጊዜ ንእስኔቶም/ንእስነተን ዜወፌዩ/ዘዌፈያ ንሓዌልቲ ሓንቲ እምኒ ዜዬቄመጥካሎም/ዜዬቄመጥካለን ሲ ፡ናይ fascist Mousolini Italy ሓዌልቲ ክትዕቅብ ክሳብ ክንድዚ ዌፌያስ እንታይ እዩ ሚስጢሩ?ዌይ ጉድ፡ ህዝቢ ኤርትራ ውርዴት ሬኺቡ።እሞ እኔሆልኩም Piccolo-Roma kkkkkkk ቢ UN ክትማሓደርያ ካብ ሕጂ ንድሕሪት ሲ።አየ ዌዲ አፎም ፡ንህዝቢ ኤርትራ ብጠጤዉ ቄቲልካዮ።

    1. Stop worryignabout Eritrea your country has won 30 million US Aid, so sweet less brother!!!! Your slogan is viva AID.

    1. TN, Tom Gardiner is gutted because he was expecting a visa and 5 star hotel and all the freebies in Eritrea, TN remember they say “”journalists are cheaper than a hookers” it wasn’t said for nothing and Guardian has perfected it no wonder they are begging for aid, perhaps they should approach USAid.

  3. In this divided world of Hegemony v. Independence nations like Eritrea who refused to be controlled by the West, have been under constant attack. It’s public secret that nothing is off limit for the West to destabilize, create chaos and ignite civil war and war in pursuit of the so-called “Regime Change”. This includes infiltrating Spies and their associates disguised as Tourists, members of Religion, food aid distributors etc.

    The notion (in this Article) that Eritrea failed or is not doing a good job to attract Tourists is badly placed and the credibility of the writer is in question.
    Eritrea does not need lecture in that regard. There is a fine line between Tourist and disguised as Tourist. Who should be blamed that Nations like Eritrea are denied their natural rights of self-determination? The judgement in
    that regard is left to every reasonable unbiased person.

    It’s also worth noting that Eritrea is the safest Nation in the tumultuous Region of the Horn of Africa and the Middle East; because of its successful security.

    The message to visit Eritrea as a Tourist (with NO hidden agendas to do harm to the security of the State and the people of Eritrea) is Welcome.

    Come to Eritrea as a Tourist and visit the spectacular sites of the Capital City Asmara alias Africa’s Modernist City and World Heritage Site under UNESCO; visit breathtaking sites in other parts of the Nation as well and, it will be worth your while.

  4. Let him spat these sore losers! While Eritrea capital ASMARA crowning glory world wide. you can say for sure there is no a single country in the world that didn’t put ASMARA in its head lines following the UNESCO inscription.
    ASMARA is the first ever city chose by UNESCO. there has never been in the world inscribed a whole city as world heritage site before .
    Now ASMARA will have millions friends all over
    the world than handful desperate losers.
    ASMARA (city of dream)
    Is coming out to the spots with the Victory that created more excitement all over the world
    discovering that such a magnificent city exists in our world.

    1. Hopeless trashes= for individual citizens
      Desperate Losers= for so called journalists, expertise, and Lecturers. What a description. I love it.

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