Ethiopia is home to nine UNESCO World Heritage sites — the most for an African country — and it’s home to Africa’s fastest-growing airline, an African success story while others get their wings clipped.
So why hasn’t the country became a major tourist destination on the continent?
That could change.
“There are many reasons tourism took a back seat (in Ethiopia) but the No. 1 was getting the basic infrastructure in place,” said Solomon Tadesse, CEO of the Ethiopian Tourism Organization, in an IPS report. “Now, the government can fully get behind (tourism) based on the economic growth of the last 10 years, which has also created a good impression with the outside world.”
Ethiopian tourism officials have been given a mandate to boost tourism destination development and marketing, and enhance the benefits of tourism in a sustainable and competitive manner, according to an IPS report by James Jeffrey.
The Ethiopian government decided to take tourism seriously in 2013 as a way of generating revenue, and created the Ethiopian Tourism Organization. The same year it created the Tourism Board to monitor Ethiopian Tourism operations, and the Tourism Transformation Council led by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
“We’re starting from ground zero, though that’s not a weakness — rather an advantage as we have learned from others’ mistakes,” Tadesse said.
In August, the Ethiopian Culture and Tourism Ministry announced a target to triple foreign visitors to more than 2.5 million by 2020. The ultimate goal: make Ethiopia one of Africa’s top five tourist destinations.
It’s a bold goal on a continent where tourism can be a fickle business, IPS reported. Kenya, for example, saw tourist numbers decline since 2015 terrorist attacks and travel warnings issued by Western governments. The result? Thousands of unoccupied hotel rooms and deserted beaches. Zimbabwe had cancellations when it announced a 15 percent tax on hotel accommodation for foreign tourists.
So who is Ethiopia competing with in Africa?
In 2013, the top 10 African destinations for international tourist arrivals were South Africa, Tunisia, Algeria, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Uganda, Namibia, and Senegal. The rankings are compiled by the United Nations World Tourism Organization as part of their World Tourism Barometer publication.
Mike Fabricius is a tourism strategist, policy analyst and marketer who has been commissioned to develop a national tourism brand and marketing strategy for Ethiopian tourism.
Fabricius is credited with helping develop South African tourism and has worked extensively in the rest of Africa. He established The Journey, an independent tourism advisory and consultancy practice, in 2004, according to WorldTravelMarket.
Ethiopia has a lot going for its tourism growth prospects, but mostly, it’s got fascinating places to visit, Fabricius said.
“Key tourism factors (in Ethiopia) such as easy and fast-growing air access, personal safety and local hospitality, rapid economic growth and, above all, fascinating discoveries to be made bode very well for rapid tourism growth,” Fabricius said in an interview with IPS.
Ethiopia’s nine UNESCO World Heritage sites include the following: Aksum; Fasil Ghebbi, Gondar region; Harar Jugol fortified historic town; Konso Cultural Landscape; Lower Valley of the Awash; Lower Valley of the Omo; Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Tiya, and Simien National Park.
They are fragile and risk being destroyed by tourists, Jeffrey said in his IPS report.
Some stakeholders say tourism development is more than hotel investment. Ethiopia needs tourist information centers, well-maintained public toilets, rest sites — restaurants, souvenir shops and medical centers — along major travel routes and around key tourism sites. These are common in other tourist destination countries but so far absent in Ethiopia, according to IPS.
Greta Iori, a conservation and tourism professional with experience in South Africa and Ethiopia, urges Ethiopia to develop tourism with the brakes on.
“This is a crucial learning point for Ethiopia,” Iori told IPS. “If we develop slowly and not at mass scale, the tourism industry will be more likely to cope with unexpected threats to tourist numbers and revenue, making it a long-term steady growth rather than a short-term gain. Rapid short-term development isn’t sustainable and has the ability to jeopardize the success and future of tourism for our nation altogether.”
Some hope Ethiopia sells a higher quality product at a higher price, IPS reports.
“Building infrastructure that meets the expectations of foreigners is key, as there is a limit to how much people are willing to rough it,” Greg Dorey, U.K. ambassador to Ethiopia, told IPS. “But the jury is out on whether it can build up the supporting infrastructure sufficiently well, given the huge obstacles it places in the way of foreign entrepreneurs investing in this sector–and foreign entrepreneurs, let’s face it, know better than most what foreign tourists want since their livelihood depends on understanding the requirement.”
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