Hiking Rising Above the Challenges

There is a new found love for hiking in Addis Ababa. Suddenly, expats and Ethiopia’s emerging middle class have started to gather themselves in groups and hike the mountains in and around Addis Ababa. The activity has picked up pace in the past few years and companies have now jumped in to tap into this growing business. EBR’s Kiya Ali looks into the growth of the business and the challenges it is prevailing over.

For Rozina Fantu, a high school teacher, March 14, 2020 was like no other Saturday. She got up at 6 O’clock and walked the three kilometers from her home to a place in front of St. Estifanos Church, near Mesqel Square, to meet nine people she never met before.

Hiking has become popular among urbanites lately and Rozina is just another first timer who has caught the wave of the newly found enthusiasm in Ethiopia. Rozina paid ETB800 for Run Africa to travel and hike a mountain in Debrelibanos, 150km away from Addis Ababa. “It is a great experience. I have met new people and explored new areas that I was not familiar with,” she remarked.

Touring is a luxury for Ethiopians as majority of the population lives in poverty and barely musters disposable income. Even in urban areas where the lion’s shares of the country’s middle income earning population lives, such an experience is uncommon. Trips to churches and monasteries around the country are the only activities that come close to one day excursions or full-fledged domestic tours. The situation is, however, changing fast with hiking becoming a new form of local tourism for residents of Addis Ababa.

Rozina has embraced the trend. Although fond of travelling, hiking had never been under her to-do-list. With the number of tour operators offering hiking services increasing steadily, however, she now frequently travels in and outside of Addis for hiking. “It gave me an opportunity to discover new places in my hometown and explore small towns outside Addis,” remarked Rozina.

Tourism makes a considerable section of the fast growing service sector in Ethiopia’s economy. It contributes 9.4Pct of GDP and creates job opportunities for over 2.2 million people. However, the sector is still at its infancy. A lot needs to be done to promote local tourism and the latest craze, hiking, contributes positively in that regard.

Hiking has peculiar traits that make it stand out from other forms of tourism activities. The following account from Ed Steven, manager of Run Africa, is descriptive of the engaging nature of hiking. “Hiking is one of the most engaging methods of discovery. With both feet on the ground at walking pace, the hiker sees, feels, hears and smells all aspects of their surroundings – terrain, weather, flora, fauna, people and so on. The hiker is active, alert and stimulated, and the likelihood of interaction with local people is much greater than travelling by any other means. Hiking also brings an aspect of adventure and sports, which is a specific branch of tourism for a specific market segment.”

Specialized businesses such as adventure and sports tourism are, however, yet to receive the critical mass that spurs their survival and development in Ethiopia. Although no concrete bureaucratic and regulatory changes have been observed, the newly found fascination of urbanites with hiking is drawing a number of investors to delve into the business.

Among those is Run Africa, an organization that offers running packages and hiking tours in and around Addis Ababa for both locally based and visiting outdoor enthusiasts. Run Africa’s local clients are expatriates living in Addis Ababa, tourists, conference visitors and young Ethiopians that make up the country’s emerging middle class as well as those who appreciate fitness, explore their surroundings and have the knack for adventure.

“Ethiopia’s emerging middle class is willing to spend on leisure activities. Many of them outgoing and adventurous, they make the ideal Run Africa customer. The affordability of hiking, coupled with the growing demand, is helping us thrive,” Ed Steven said.

Addis Hiking is an informal organization established seven years ago by a travel fanatic, Biniam Sheriff. Although he started it as a part time activity, many have joined his ranks since. Social media networks, including facebook and Telegram, helped him promote his business. “We used to offer hiking every month. But lately, with the increase in demand, we organize hiking events three times a month,” noted Biniam.

Although the fee depends on the distance of the destination, the payment for trips in and around Addis ranges from ETB200 to ETB400 per person. One day hiking trips to destinations over 150km away from Addis cost between ETB600 and ETB800 per person. For weekend camping trips, it is between ETB1,800 to 2,000 per person. Considering the price, it is undeniable that the business is profitable. EBR observed that some make net profits that go as high as ETB80, 000 after arranging a trip for 250 people almost 150km away from Addis.

Hiking companies have also become a source of income for hotels, food retailers and local communities. “We buy food items and bottled water from local communities,” says Loza Abera, a Team Leader at Run Africa. She also pointed out that they also take visitors to museums.

Globally, hiking has been identified by many economies as a strategically important segment of tourism that can contribute a lot to community development. Tourism routes and hiking trails developments are being proposed in many parts of the world as tools to tourism, economic and community development. In ideal conditions, the local community acts as a tourist-service-point and provides home stay facilities or camp ground, food and beverage.

The existing situation in Ethiopia is, however, far from the above stated ideal scenario. A cumbersome bureaucracy discourages a significant proportion of those who want to get involved in tourism. The burden is shared by people who want to venture into hiking. For instance, in order to register as a tour operator in Ethiopia, there are numerous requirements, including owning a modern 4×4 vehicle and tents. “To date, Run Africa has successfully demonstrated that unique experiences can be organized without all of these equipment, and that tourism should be permitted to operate in a more diversified, flexible way,” Steven argues.

The political unrest in the country is another challenge that hinders the growth of hiking habits. Another problem is absence of convenient payment facilities. “Especially for customers engaging with Run Africa from outside Ethiopia, it is a challenge to offer a method of payment which is easy and does not incur them additional fees. Facilities including online credit card payment and PayPal are not available in Ethiopia. For customers within Ethiopia, payment collection also presents a challenge, although the situation is steadily improving thanks to digital payment platforms such as CBE-Birr, M-Birr, HelloCash and Amole, which are gaining traction,” Steven added.

What is more concerning is the lack of standards and rules to regulate hiking businesses. Using the existing loopholes as an opportunity, a group of youngsters nowadays form hiking groups and earn income without being licensed. In addition to posing unfair competition for formal businesses, such a practice exposes visitors to accidents as such groups don’t have proper guides and professionals specialized in such services.

Meanwhile, Tourism Ethiopia is working on the construction of information centers at selected places and plans to finalize the formulation of national standards for hiking within a year. It also identified 20 places suitable for hiking. “We also encourage private and foreign investors to get involved in the sector as hiking is an important activity that complements physical fitness, helps build a healthy society and creates job opportunities,” Director of Tourism Ethiopia, Sileshi Girma emphasized.EBR


9th Year • Apr.16 – May.15 2020 • No. 85

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