Tourism: The fascinating Unesco-listed African city you’d never thought to visit
For all its image as an unfathomably huge landmass of wildlife-filled savannahs, vast unforgiving deserts, great lakes and giant rivers meandering soupily through flood-prone deltas, Africa is a continent of important and fascinating cities.
Cape Town, Cairo, Johannesburg, Marrakech, Fez, Nairobi, Port Elizabeth and Windhoek are all urban enclaves which might well attract your attention. As, indeed, is Tunis, if you feel like returning to a country that has endured a turbulent time for much of this decade.
But Asmara? There, perhaps, is a name that will make you scratch your head – and pose a fair question, not so much of whether you should go there as to where the hell it is.
The answer is that Asmara is the capital of Eritrea, a sliver of a country which adorns the Horn of Africa. It sits wedged between Ethiopia and Djibouti to the south, and Sudan to the west and north. It is also delineated by its coastline on the Red Sea – facing Yemen and Saudi Arabia across the waters of the narrow Bab-el-Mandeb strait.
Now that we’ve established the geography, we can come back to that issue of whether you should go there. And the response to that question – even though the mixed bag of next-door states mentioned above might make you suck your breath through your teeth and mutter that the only way you would find yourself in any of them is if you were lost – is, as of earlier this week, a more cautious “yes” than it has been for a while.
The problem neighbour for Eritrea has not been, as you might assume, war-torn Yemen, but its big brother Ethiopia. The two states have a long and interwoven history which dates back as least as far as their shared time in the Kingdom of Aksum – the dominant force which ruled this part of north-eastern Africa between roughly 100 and 1000AD.
Yet their relationship has been turbulent since the middle of the last century. Eritrea emerged blinking from the Second World War and the colonial yoke of “Italian Eritrea” (which had existed since 1890), achieving a tentative statehood via the 1952 United Nations ruling that it should govern itself with a little military help from Ethiopia – only for its “friend” to the south to abandon the arrangement in 1962, annex what it had once protected and spark a war for independence that would run until 1991.
Hardly a friendly environment for tourism, you might think. And you would be right – but for the news that the cold front between the states, which has endured to a large extent since a sovereign Eritrea was declared in 1993, has become warmer in the last few days.
On Sunday, Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister, landed in Asmara for talks with the Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki. The men greeted each other affably and shook hands in the first face-to-face meeting of the nations’ leaders in two decades.
At the root of the thawing is Ethiopia’s recent announcement that it will accept the UN decision, made in 2002, on the precise route of the border between the countries – and waive its claims to contested areas along the boundary. In return, there will be a restoration of diplomatic ties – which were sundered by another war between the two between 1998 and 2000 – and a new chance of stability along its long northern flank.
The coming together is a direct consequence of Mr Abiy’s rise to power. Elected only three months ago, he is seen as a reformer who is ready to put aside years of tensions for the greater good. But it might also be a tourism boon for Eritrea, a country that few overseas visitors see – even though, for the intrepid at least, there is plenty to entice them.
Chief among them is Asmara itself. Last July, it was added to the list of Unesco World Heritage sites, elevated to the cultural pantheon on the basis that, to use Unesco’s own words, it “is an excellent example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century, and its application in an African context.”
This, of course, refers back to Italian Eritrea, and a colonial period which saw the construction of buildings that could also have found favour in Rome. Some, admittedly, have that grandstanding fascistic overtone so redolent of the Mussolini era, but others are remarkably striking slabs of forward-looking ingenuity.
Among them is the Fiat Tagliero Building, a figment of fantasy that was conceived as a petrol station in 1938 by the engineer and Art Deco enthusiast Giuseppe Pettazzi, but is more akin to a broad-winged plane in flight than a simple combination of forecourts and pumps. Another is the Cinema Impero – built a year earlier in 1937, but still functioning today in all its red-facaded Art Deco magnificence.
And there are attractions beyond the capital. There is Adulis, an ancient archaeological site which existed in the Roman epoch. Massawa is an intriguing port on the Red Sea, reachable from the capital on a train line – a legacy of Italian rule – which meanders romantically through highlands, lowlands and the places in between. And from Massawa, you board a boat to the Dahlak Archipelago – 126 islands (although two main ones) out in the Red Sea where pearl fishing is still a crucial part of the economy.
Tour operators are slowly starting to appreciate Eritrea’s potential as a destination – a flicker on the horizon for experienced explorers of Africa rather than first-timers on the continent, but a place to admire all the same. Responsible Travel for example, sells a 10-day group tour of the country which ticks off Asmara, Adulis and Massawa – from £2,490 per person (not including flights; two further departures scheduled for this year).
And Steppes Travel will be tip-toeing into the country in the autumn via a 12-day jaunt – named, evocatively, “Inside Africa’s Forgotten Kingdom”, and due to begin on October 18 – which it describes as a “pioneering group tour”. Prices begin at £3,545 a head, including flights with Egyptair – although it is will soon be possible to fly to Asmara with Ethiopian Airlines.
Said carrier – part of the Star Alliance, and an increasingly crucial conduit between the airports of Africa and Europe – has just announced that, in light of the sudden political thaw, it will resume services between the Eritrean capital and its own base, Addis Ababa, next week, with the first aircraft taking off on July 17.
There are, of course, several caveats to the idea of Eritrea as a destination. While the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) deems much of the country safe to visit, it adds that “telephone networks are often unreliable and may only work for limited periods each day outside Asmara and larger towns,” and cautions that “there are serious constraints on what the British Embassy can do to help British nationals in Eritrea”.
It also emphasises that “all foreign nationals must apply in advance for a travel permit to leave Asmara,” and that “there are checkpoints outside of Asmara where your travel permit will be checked”. Steppes Travel takes up the theme, informing would-be participants in its October tour that “undoubtedly challenging, and with its tourist industry barely classified as nascent, Eritrea is a place only suitable for those who are happy to tolerate the frustrations of exploring a young country, still firmly in the grasp of authoritarianism.”
The latter warning refers to Afwerki who, for all that his country is now closer to Ethiopia, is nobody’s idea of a democratic leader. President since independence, he has overseen a one-party state where dissent is quashed for 25 years. He has been criticised for human rights abuses by the UN, and Amnesty International.
And yet even these asterisks are perhaps worth tolerating if you wish to see a country that has long stood far from the beaten track – yet which may be inching closer towards it. We are still a considerable time away from the vision of five-star resorts on Eritrea’s Red Sea coast, but perhaps, in the next few years, it may ping, softly at least, on the travel radar.
By Chris Leadbeater