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
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
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
"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."
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
"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
"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."