Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

The tide is turning for Ethiopia’s tourism industry, as the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture and Tourism recently announced it aims to triple the number of foreign visitors, to more than 2.5 million, by 2020, with an ultimate goal of making Ethiopia one of Africa's top five tourist destinations by 2020.

To achieve that goal, Ethiopia has given the nod of approval to an ambitious five-year tourism marketing plan and strategy, developed by The Journey, a tourism consulting and marketing company. To travelers, Ethiopia is perhaps best known for the Omo Valley, in the south of the country, where visitors can encounter a number of extraordinary tribes. Cultural experiences abound as the tribe’s traditions, songs and dances are still as vivid as they have been for hundreds of years; the valley is as close as anyone can come to “untouched” Africa.

In the north, Ethiopia’s historical route takes visitors from the current capital of Addis Ababa to the former capitals of the Gonderite and Axumite Empires as well as to the sacred city of Lalibela and the rock churches of Tigray. Lalibela, a medieval settlement in the Lasta area of Wello, is home to 11 Ethiopian Orthodox churches that were built in the 13th century on the orders of King Lalibela, not from the ground up but chiseled out of the town's red volcanic rock hills.

“So far, Ethiopia has not really promoted its tourism very aggressively,” said Mike Fabricius, tourism strategist at The Journey. He explains that this is about to change as Ethiopia is poised for rapid tourism growth, thanks in part to the development of Ethiopian Airlines as one of the fastest-growing airlines on the continent and Addis Ababa as an aviation hub.

During the coming year, Ethiopia will roll out an international marketing campaign, which will focus on the traditional target markets, including the U.S. This marketing campaign will address common misconceptions, such as the fact that Ethiopia is a dry and arid country and that it is unsafe.

Fabricius explains that these misconceptions are already fading fast and that people are starting to see that Ethiopia is a lush and green country with fantastic scenery. He adds: “The country is scenically diverse, and it is safe and stable. The people are amazing and hospitable.”

Engagement with travel agents will be a focal point for Ethiopia, according to Fabricius, and fam trips are in the pipeline. He says: “An important part of the marketing plan is to educate the travel trade. There is major scope for Ethiopia to get more operators and agents to understand and know the destination.”

Dave Herbert, CEO of Great Safaris, explains that Ethiopia is indeed not a destination that Great Safaris currently markets, except for stopovers en route to other destinations. “In our experience, there is little demand from American luxury travelers for Ethiopia,” he said.

Fabricius explains this lack of interest is linked to a lack of knowledge. “Very few people understand the diversity that Ethiopia is offering. Once the travel trade becomes more knowledgeable, they can better inform the consumer,” he said.

Ethiopia also plans to develop new travel routes and circuits, which will help spread tourism to the lesser-known parts of the country. “It’s a very big country, so it’s quite difficult to just hop around,” Fabricius said. “You need to plan your journey. The main southern and northern route are already on the program, but now the country will also be developing circuits that branch off the main spine routes.”

Ethiopia will invest in the development of visitor information infrastructure throughout the country to help visitors find their way through Ethiopia. A new app is also in the cards, which will enable visitors to get information quickly and easily on their phones.

Investment in the country’s infrastructure is definitely a necessary step if the country wants to be a consistent competitor for the “Western tourist,” according to Michael King, co-president of Great Getaways Travel, a Virtuoso agency. He says: “The country still needs more widespread infrastructure; better security measures, especially given who a couple of their neighbors are; more upscale camps in and around the parks; and a curriculum for guides and those wanting to be guides with some type of national recognition (guide quality is still too haphazard). In short: consistent product and delivery across the country is needed.”

Not everyone is happy about Ethiopia’s resolve to massively increase tourism numbers. Tour operators in Ethiopia have warned that an increase in tourism numbers could potentially impact on the beauty of this pristine destination.

Betty Jo Curry, founder and CEO of Currie & Co, a Virtuoso agency, has her doubts about increasing tourism to Ethiopia, saying she would hate the destination to become too popular and “kill what makes it special.” She says: “Approach it like Bhutan and Botswana. Keep tourism small and limited to protect the cultures and tribes.”

However, Fabricius explains that sustainability is a key priority for everyone involved in the development of Ethiopia’s tourism. “The government will need to keep an eye on tourism numbers as well as manage the relationship between tourists and the local population, especially when it comes to popular sites such as Lalibela which is a place of worship for the local community.”

The development of the country needs to be properly landscaped so that the tourism numbers don’t impact on the value and sustainability of the destination. This could mean that the country needs to look at introducing entry numbers for example, says Dr. Fabricius. He adds however, that Ethiopia is not at that point yet. “Ethiopia is a very big country and can take large numbers, but the idea is not to blindly chase numbers. It will be a challenge and Ethiopia will have to focus on this.”


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