Katherine Jochen has her work cut out for her. Ethiopia does not have tourist board representation in the U.S., so as market development manager for Ethiopian Airlines, she is also the de facto voice of that country to the American travel industry.

And perhaps more than anyone else participating in our destination summit roundtable (check back on Oct. 16 on TravelWeekly.com's homepage for more coverage), she faces the challenge of sorting out a tangle of misperceptions, explaining some unpleasant realities and promoting impressive accomplishments in the country she represents.

Ethiopian Airlines is generally regarded as the best-run carrier on the continent. And, as I've written before, Ethiopia has archaeological attractions that are among the best preserved and most unusual in the world.

"Everybody thinks of Ethiopia as a famine-riven country, and it's very hard to dispel that image," Jochen said. "They think of the famine, of the poverty. They don't realize what a country like Ethiopia has to offer in terms of culture and history."

It certainly doesn't help that Ethiopia has been in the news recently because of conflicts with Eritrea and with rebels in one region of the country. "It definitely has an impact on the perception of the country and people's travel plans," Jochen said. "Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of money to throw at a problem like that. We just hope it doesn't appear on the front page."

It's not only U.S. consumers whose perceptions about Ethiopia -- in fact, about sub-Saharan African in general -- make her job hard. Sometimes it's potential partners in the U.S. who seem reluctant to give the continent a chance.

Adel Grobler, who handles marketing and communications for South Africa in the U.S., said that until her country began negotiating with Expedia, "they never had an African portion on their booking Web site."

Jochen said she, too, had to work to "simply get our flights onto Web sites. I have to say that every month I see an increase in the traffic coming out of the Internet. For both Expedia and Orbitz ... every month, the revenue goes up."

Travelocity, however, has thus far refused to work with Ethiopian Airlines. I asked what rationale the online agency offered.

"Too small, too unknown, too ... you know, too much effort," Jochen said. "Very typical of what people think of African airlines and countries in general. So it will be their loss, not ours."

Also sitting around our table were representatives from another region that struggles to change common perceptions: the Middle East.

Egyptian and Israeli representatives said that while tourism from the U.S. was strong and growing, it was somewhat fragile.

"Any violence has negative effects on tourism," said Sayed Khalifa, Egypt's chief destination marketer in the U.S. "Our message has been that Egypt is safe, it is stable, it is a peace-making nation, and our message has found listening ears. But violence, wars and conflicts ruin any effort. ... Tourism is a force for peace, but you cannot have tourism without peace."

Both he and Arie Sommer, the tourism commissioner for Israel in the U.S., endorsed a regional approach to changing people's perceptions. "We believe that the more we encourage tourism to the region together, the more we can achieve peace for the whole region together," Sayed said.

"We are trying very hard to show Americans that it's safe to go not only to Israel but to the region," Sommer said. "One of the things we need to do is develop more regional travel, to work together with Egypt and Jordan. ... I think we can send a very strong message to Americans that we can work together. I hope that after this meeting, something will come out of it."

It's interesting that the hardscape of a land -- the pyramids of Egypt, Jerusalem's Temple Mount, Ethiopia's Lalibela -- is often what draws tourists, and that perceptions about its people scare them off. Sayed and Sommer's approach seems right: Americans would feel better seeing Jews and Arabs working together.

Jochen, too, pins her hopes on the human side of things. She believes one recently exported attraction of Ethiopia may build a bridge between Americans and Ethiopia.

Lucy, the most complete skeleton of a human ancestor, was unearthed in Ethiopia and began a six-year tour of the U.S. last month, starting in Houston. (Washington, Chicago, New York and Denver have also been announced for the tour. Other cities are yet to be determined.)

"This will give us an opportunity to promote Ethiopia as the cradle of humankind," Jochen said. "We've got to dispel the typical African image of famine, war and poverty. It really has a lot more to offer."

Comments

From Our Partners

2020 NTG Webinar Series
Travel, Our Future and Yours A Series of Conversations with Industry Leaders
Register Now
American Queen South
American Queen Steamboat Company
Read More
2020 Club Med Webinar
Let’s Escape Again with Club Med
Register Now

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI