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Totalitarian Tourist Attraction

Asmara was recently added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, raising the prospect of a tourism boom for the Eritrean capital.

The tables inside the empty hotel restaurant are draped in white linen cloths, their place settings replete with porcelain plates and crystal glasses. Muffled voices emanate from the kitchen.

In perusing the menu, I take note of the many pizzas and pastas, but due to a power outage coffee is out of the question.

Outside the newly renovated restaurant sits Fabio Ruffato, a rep for the Italian-owned, international chain VOI Hotels, in the Albergo Italia, a short distance away from Harnet Avenue, Asmara’s parade street.

Fabio is part of a larger Italian delegation spent the day with President Esaias Afewerki discussing the obstacles to attracting foreign investment, of which there are many: foreign SIM cards do not work, internet is spotty at best and tourists need signed permission slips to leave the capital.

“World heritage site or not, without functioning ATM machines or Internet, it will be hard to invest and draw tourists here,” Fabio says.

In a report from 2015, the UN wrote that the Eritrean regime was guilty of systematic human rights violations against its own people. Eritrea has denied the accusations.

Everything began when Benito Mussolini took power of Italy in 1922, and gave the Italian architects and city planners the task to spread “civilization” to the colonies in fashion of the Roman Empire. Architect Vittorio Cafiero arrived in Asmara in 1938 to actualize the ideas of the Italian fascist state.

After Benito Mussolini rose to power in Italy in 1922, he tasked his architects and city planners with spurring development across Eritrea and other Italian colonies, and in 1938 he dispatched the famed architect Vittorio Cafiero to Asmara to make fascists ideas a reality.

The Italians were expelled from the country after World War II, leading to a decade of British administrative control. But by 1952, the Brits had also left, and this small country on the Horn of Africa was largely forgotten. Indeed, much of Eritrea seems at a standstill, with half-constructed buildings that harken back to early 20th century colonial rule, the grand promises of Eritrea’s three-decade-long independence movement long since faded.

Despite the Eritrea’s deeply rooted problems, Asmara is a city whose architecture is so enthralling, so culturally significant, that UNESCO recently added the capital to its list of World Heritage Sites, a highly coveted designation that many people here hope will lift their tourism economy out of the doldrums.

Dawit Abraha does world heritage work.

I tried reaching out to Engineer Dawit Abraha, who has been a leading figure in Eritrea’s efforts to preserve its architecture. But he was unable to meet with me immediately because he needed permission from the government to speak with a foreign journalist. Eritrea has banned private media outlets and imprisoned journalists, including Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak.

When Abraha and I finally meet, it is in his bosses’ room, which has a sweeping view of Asmara. The morning sun shines through the windows and in the distance, prayer calls from the mosques mixed with the ringing of church bells.

“The road to become a World Heritage Site has been long, and it has been placed on halt during times when Eritrea has been at war,” Abraha says, adding that more than 4,000 buildings have been meticulously catalogued and conservation plans drawn up for each.

Asmara’s road to become a World Heritage Site has been long, with Eritrea having to put the process on hold when it was war, Abraha says. By the time UNESCO granted the designation, workers had meticulously catalogued more than 4,000 culturally significant buildings and drawn up conservation plans for each.

“We followed protocol to a tee in order to make it,” Abraha says. “It hasn’t been an easy journey; we’ve had setbacks and progress, but now we’ve reached part of our goal.”

One of the biggest challenges in preserving the site is the magnitude of the task. It would be easier if it were just one building. But with more than 4,000 buildings spanning 1,200 acres (500 hectares), Eritrea, one of the poorest nations in the world, is bound to struggle with maintenance and making upgrades to the many structures that are in dire need of major renovations.

“Building conservation is expensive,” Abraha says. “But just because we cannot afford it all, we are not going to idle.” He added that workers are developing plans for each of the 4,000 building and a creating a priority list for which projects to tackle first.

In 2017, UNESCO unanimously decided to make the Eritrean capital, Asmara, a World Heritage Site. The designation reflects Asmara’s early 20th century architecture, a modernist style that drew influences from Italian colonial rule. Asmara has been dubbed, “Little Rome.”

Hanna Simon, the Eritrean ambassador to France and a UNESCO representative, said the decision to make Asmara a World Heritage Site was “a victory, not only for the Eritrean people but also for the African continent and the world.”

Today, few tourists ever visit Eritrea, but many people hope that will change. The landscape is hilly and rich with plants and wildlife. Coral reefs lie off the coast. And the capital city, Asmara, boasts beautiful colonial-era architecture and archeological remains dating back thousands of years.

During Italian colonial rule, city planners had three main goals: gain control, prevent insurgency, and break down social structures within the local population. Racial laws imposed by fascist Italy between 1938 and 1943 resulted in the destruction of entire neighborhoods and the creation of parks and industrial areas to serve as buffers between European and non-European residential areas. The long-lasting impact of that period can still be felt in the layout of Asmara’s streets and neighborhoods.

Eritrea är ett av världens fattigaste länder. Ett halvsekel av krig eller krigsliknande tillstånd har satt djupa spår.

After the city was redeveloped by his Italian planners, Mussolini proudly dubbed Asmara, “Little Rome.” But Abraha says that even if the architecture drew on the ideas of Italian designers, the city has grown into an enduring piece of Eritrean identity.

“The fascist years wasn’t an easy period. People were killed in public hangings and tortured here,” Abraha says. “We are angry with the colonialists. Not the buildings. To us, this is not a colonial heritage, it is our heritage. Our city.”

He says that although the decision to grant Asmara World Heritage Site status was based on the confluence of cultures from two vastly different countries, the labor and materials used to construct the buildings, including wood and marble, were domestic to Eritrea.

“Eritreans could build modernist structures during the colonial period. The craftsmanship was impressive and from this, our modern Asmara was born,” Abraha says. “When these buildings were erected, Asmara was already one of the most modern cities in the world.”

A short walk from Abraha’s office lies the actual world heritage landmark, the famous “Fiat Tagliero Building,” a futurist-style service station built in 1936 and designed by Giuseppe Pettazzi.

The Fiat Tagliero Building, designed as a gas station, is one of Asmara’s most famous examples of modern architecture.

“The Fiat building alone could be a world heritage site,” Dawit Abraha says. “It’s like the Pyramids to Egypt and the Eiffel Tower to Paris.”

Back in 1936, after the concrete solidified and workers were about to remove The Fiat Building’s mold, many observers worried that the station’s wings would fall apart. Giuseppe Pettazzi is said to have threatened to shoot himself if that happened.

But it never did. Today, with The Fiat Building empty and cardboard covering its windows, the building’s 100-foot wingspan stretches over a vacant lot.

“When it was built, the first airplanes, trains and steamers were traveling across the skies and oceans,” Abraha says. “The whole world was in motion, and that inspired the idea for a gas station that looked like it could take off.”

The modernist vision that The Fiat Building represented is belied by the economic malaise that grips Eritrea today. Lines to banks and pharmacies snake around corners. Gasoline prices have surged. And the staggering unemployment rate as well as prolonged mandatory military service has caused many people to seek refuge abroad.

Eritreans represent one of the largest groups seeking safe haven in Sweden, which is the most refugee-friendly countries in Europe and where the number of asylum seekers has tripled in the past 25 years

As I walk through the capital, I spot a towering movie theater – Cinema Impero, built in 1936 – off the distance.

Walking through the streets of Asmara, it feels like time has stopped. Even the movie posters harken back decades.

“The cinema is one of the few examples we have of Art Deco,” Abraha explains. “Many people believe [Asmara] is an Art Deco city, but it styled more in a modernist fashion with hints of futurism.”

The power is out at the movie theater and it’s pitch black inside. But at the café in front of the ticketing window, a crowd has gathered in front of a screen to watch BBC News, operating via a power chord. When I ask some of them how they feel about Asmara becoming a World Heritage Site, one person cynically says that Eritreans are too proud for their own good.

The construction boom under Italian colonial rule came to an abrupt end when British and Ethiopian troops invaded Asmara in April of 1941. The Brits sent word home of a “European city with wide boulevards, fantastic cinemas, impressive fascist buildings, cafés, shops, four-lane roads and a first-class hotel.”

After the Brits left, Eritreas modern chronicle is a story of colonizing, oppression and thirty years of war against Ethiopian occupation ending with liberation 1991. Seven years later another devastating war was followed by sanctions.

One of the chief reasons why Eritrea has long struggled to grow tourism is that the country is mired in a state of disrepair brought on by decades of neglect. As a result Eritrea for long stood on the sidelines as the rest of Africa boomed.

Now many hope that this will change.

Abraha says Eritrea is now hobbled by a lack of rules around constructions and height requirements for buildings. “So we need to get a legal framework in place that puts limits as to how tall a building can be,” he says.

The Eritrean regime often boasts about forthcoming initiatives to spur tourism, but in Asmara there are few signs that these promises are coming to fruition.

Eritrean and neighboring Ethiopia share a rich cultural heritage via the Orthodox Church, but Eritrea also draws influences from other Muslim neighbors, as well as Italian colonial rule.

The relatively strong communications network the Italians and Brits left behind was largely destroyed during Eritrea’s war for independence from Ethiopia, which lasted from 1962 to 1991.

The following evening, the Albergo Italia hotel dining room is devoid of patrons. The Eritrean regime boasts about forthcoming initiatives to spur tourism, but the empty restaurant speaks to how those promises are largely going unfulfilled.

Tecle Tesfemariam, the managing director of the hotel, joins me at my table and says he is confident that his Asmara’s new status will transform the city into an internationally renowned tourist attraction.

“Asmara is like a beautiful bride that has been hidden away in a remote village,” he says. “The designation isn’t cosmetics; it’s a way to unveil this city so everyone can enjoy her beauty.”

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