Culture as a Brand: How Traditional Coffee Ceremonies are Promoting Tourism

With its ancient and complex history, tradition and ceremonies, Ethiopia has not only left the relics of a distinctive past in the form of tangible monuments, churches and castles, but has also held on tightly to its variety of rich, deep-rooted religious and secular traditions. Not only is preserving Ethiopia’s unique culture vital from a historical perspective, its untapped tourism potential is a powerful tool for economic development. Addis Abeba is comparatively young and it has not yet lived up to its promise of attracting a large number of tourists to visit the country’s historical sites. Conferences have been booming in Addis and have brought a plethora of new hotels to the city and tourism is on the brink of major change. The sheer number of foreigners that come to the capital simply for business and conferences has catapulted in the past several years and the impact can be seen in all the hotels being constructed.

Hotels have souvenir shops, travel agencies and packages that expose guests to the variety of customs and experiences the country has to offer and many have gone the extra mile by providing a traditional coffee ceremony. These coffee stations, cozily set up around a woman who prepares the coffee from scratch, diffuse the smell of roasting coffee beans, delicious brews and local incense throughout the lobbies in which they’re found. This, accompanied by ornate traditional furniture and utensils never fails to draw in a crowd. In the lobbies of hotels such as The Hilton and Intercontinental, this is a common scene while hotels like Radisson Blu have taken a more modernized approach, putting a sleek branch of TOMOCA Café in the luxurious lobby. TOMOCA, a long-standing, well-known chain that serves solely Ethiopian Arabica coffee with roasts from Harar, Sidamo and so on, brews all its coffee in Italian machines instead of the traditional jebena. However, the experience is surprisingly, no less enjoyable. The staff are well versed in their knowledge of different roasts and brews as well as the history of Ethiopian coffee and can provide excellent tasting sessions that are a hit with guests. When looking at this, as well as traditional coffee house, and considering the prices range from about four to almost thirty birr a cup, it isn’t long before one thinks of the potential economic impact the provision and promotion of such cultural experiences can have.

When people visit a place for the first time they are interested in learning and experiencing something unique, regardless of their reason for travel. As one of the women serving coffee mentioned, guests who have not had a chance to thoroughly explore the city are curious about the coffee making process and the ceremony that comes with its consumption. These coffee house give guests a taste of Ethiopian culture; “I don’t have time for a lot of cultural experiences but the traditional coffee ceremony is something I was glad to spend my time on, just to experience something different,” explained one Hilton guest from France. This unique quality is one of the key aspects of these coffee stations that make them popular and successful. This success is not only good for the business but also for the employees who are able to bring in an income and supplement it with the tips they receive, especially from their foreign customers. The sheer number of traditional coffee houses in the streets of Addis Abeba is enough to show the strength of this industry and its significance to those who earn their living from it, especially women, who secure their employment due to their traditional role as heads of the ceremony.

Much like the art of sushi making in Japan, the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony can become a brand for the Nation. Travelling comes from curiosity and interest in the new and the exotic, it is vital that a country has cultural visibility in the outside world. When one thinks of popular tourist destinations, they are attached with a distinct characteristic. Thinking of India may spur images of colorful clothing and food, beautiful temples and ceremonies while the idea of Brazil might induce thoughts of music, dancing, and carnivals. These ideas are what help travellers decide where to spend their tourist dollars. Associations like these help brand a country, presenting its unique identity and the recognition that comes with the ability to generate tourism, money and in turn, development.

Distinctiveness is a characteristic that is more than important in economic activity, it is essential and when thinking of cultural commodities, it’s clear we have this in bundles through food, drink, art and much more.


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