ASMARA – It’s Africa’s most secretive state and the source of tens of thousands of migrants who have fled towards Europe.
But Eritrea is also now home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site after the cultural organization added the capital Asmara to its list. Home to art deco buildings constructed by Italian colonialists in the 1930s, UNESCO described Asmara as an “exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context.”
The declaration has led to a slew of positive media coverage for a country that has been ranked as the world’s worst place for press freedom in eight of the past nine years by Reporters Sans Frontieres. Commentators have dubbed Eritrea as “Africa’s North Korea,” and rights groups have accused the government of widespread repression and abuses.
But given the new designation, there may be an increase in interest from potential tourists in the Horn of Africa state. So, what does it take to go to Eritrea?
Firstly, several Western governments warn against traveling to the country. The State Department “warns U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Eritrea,” saying that the Asmara government restrict the travel of all foreign nationals within the country. The note is less strongly-worded than other travel warnings made by the U.S.—for neighboring Sudan, for example, the advisory simply “warns U.S. citizens not to travel to Sudan”—but points to the potential for obstacles to travel to, and within, Eritrea.
Obtaining a visa for travel from the U.S. to Eritrea is relatively straightforward: Asmara has an embassy in Washington; a tourist visa costs $50; and processing time is a minimum of 10 days. Dual U.S.-Eritrean nationals, or others holding an Eritrean ID card, are not required to obtain visas.
But according to an Amnesty International researcher who has traveled to Eritrea four times, foreigners are likely to face questioning when they arrive in the country. “You would need to explain yourself; the government is pretty skeptical of people coming,” says the researcher, who asks to remains anonymous for security reasons. “If you’re a foreigner and not Eritrean, they are going to ask you why you want to come, because they are skeptical of foreign influence in Eritrea.”
This skepticism is unsurprising given Eritrea’s history. The country, which lies just across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, was colonized by Italy, then Britain, then Ethiopia, until gaining independence following a bloody 30-year war in 1991.
And since the early 2000s, Eritrea has gained a reputation as an international pariah. The country cracked down heavily on private media in 2001, leaving only state-run media houses in operation, to criticism from rights groups. In 2009, the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo and travel ban on Eritrean leaders after finding that the state had supported the Islamist rebels Al-Shabab in Somalia, an accusation Eritrea denied. More recently, the U.S. banned dealings with the Eritrean navy, after a U.N. body said it had evidence of Eritrea trading in military equipment with North Korea, which Washington is trying to isolate in a bid to neutralize its nuclear threat.
Once in Eritrea, Asmara is an impressive destination, according to Ahmed Soliman, a researcher for Chatham House, an international affairs think tank in the U.K., who has been to the city twice for business. “It’s one of the most architecturally stunning cities that I’ve been to,” says Soliman, who last visited in 2016 for 10 days.
Soliman says that the main street in Asmara’s city center, Harnet Avenue, is lined with cafes, shops and restaurants that would be found in any Western capital. He particularly recommends the Spaghetti and Pizza House, a homage to the country’s Italian influence.
Besides Asmara, Eritrea has several other notable sites. The port city of Massawa was once called the “Pearl of the Red Sea” and hosts now-crumbling Ottoman, Egyptian and Italian architecture, while the nearby Dahlak Islands—a contested archipelago in the Red Sea—are home to a Qatari-funded luxury resort (as well as a secret prison, according to Human Rights Watch).
But according to the Amnesty International researcher, leaving Asmara is not a simple process for tourists. “There are travel restrictions but also checkpoints that increase in number when there are a lot of foreigners or diaspora in town,” the researcher says.
Historically, tourism has not been a big industry for Eritrea: Western states advise citizens not to travel to certain parts of the country—for example along the volatile Ethiopian border—and the presence of landmines have deterred many foreign visitors.
The designation of a world heritage site can result in an uptick in tourism, and the Amnesty researcher says the new label should prompt the government to restore the city’s architecture. Soliman, the Chatham House researcher, says he would like to return to Eritrea as a tourist to see more of the country. “Eritrea isn’t a dangerous place, you don’t see any danger, you don’t feel danger in Asmara when you are there, it’s very much the opposite,” he says. Having not traveled outside the capital, however, he admits that his experience is only of a “microcosm” of the country as a whole.
Asmara itself has welcomed the new designation. Eritrea’s permanent representative to UNESCO, Hanna Simon, described it as “a symbol of pride and achievement for the Eritrean people and shoulders the responsibility to maintain its status,” according to a statement from the Eritrean information ministry’s outlet Shabait.
The statement also noted that the new status “will potentially benefit Eritrea in the tourism sector.” Should that be the case, a little more light may be shed on Africa’s outcast state.