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(Quartz Africa) Eritrea’s picturesque capital is now a World Heritage site and could help bring it in from the cold

Posted by: Biniam Tekle

Date: Tuesday, 11 July 2017

https://qz.com/1026237/eritreas-asmara-is-now-a-unesco-world-heritage-site-and-should-boost-tourism/

LA PICCOLA ROMA

Eritrea’s picturesque capital is now a World Heritage site and could
help bring it in from the cold

Roma Cinema in Asmara. The city is sometimes called "La Piccola Roma"
or "Little Rome". (Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)

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Tom Gardner
7 hours ago
Quartz Africa

In 1996 a German architecture firm proposed razing historic
buildingsin 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
Africa’s so-called hermit kingdom 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 but some government guides told New York Times there were fewer
than 1,000visitors in 2015.


The decision to nominate Asmara is evidence of the authoritarian
state’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.

A man walks past the Fiat Tagliero building designed by the Italian
architect Giuseppe Pettazzi in a futuristic style and completed in
1938.(Reuters/Thomas Mukoya)

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 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.

Eritreans gather in front of the Catholic Cathedral in the capital,
Asmara, (Reuters/Ed Harris/File)
ERi-TV Tigrinya news, Evening News, November 22, 2017

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