Tourism Development: Ethiopia’s Next Frontier Featured

Due to its ancient history, remnants of past civilizations, diverse cultures and natural beauty, Ethiopia has the potential to be a must-see destination for tourists. Yet, despite its abundance of historic and natural attractions, the country has not benefitted from a robust tourism industry. EBR Staff Writer Berihun Mekonnen explores that limitations on tourist site development and service deliveries, poor infrastructure, and weak promotion and marketing are hindering the prospects of making Ethiopia a world-renowned tourist destination.

Though many tourist attractions in Ethiopia are underdeveloped, there is a concerted effort to change that. Major infrastructure development, such as road construction, upgrading and expanding electricity and telecom access, have been taking place across the country. Most of this infrastructure development has reached to many of the tourist sites, though they aren’t always reliable. 

Yet, even if these changes make it easier to access certain infrastructure at these sites, the attractions themselves aren’t always very well developed. Proper development usually involves considering factors to make sites more amenable to foreign visitors, including educational and explanatory sign posts and walking paths, as well as aesthetic considerations, such as proper placement of museum exhibits and historic artefacts. Ideally, a tourist who visits the Castles of Gondar should be able to understand historical events by looking at a museum exhibit and other artefacts in addition to the Castles themselves. Or a tourist who visits a national park should be provided the necessary infrastructure and services to make them stay as long as possible. 

All tourists are not English speakers and a guide’s explanation about the facts of some natural or historic sites might not be enough. The site should be planned and developed to explain itself. 

People often compare the tourism industry in Ethiopia with that of neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania -- countries who, unlike Ethiopia, are reaping substantial revenue from the industry -- and are perplexed by the paradox. However, tourist sites in these countries consist largely of natural sites (parks, game reserves) and wildlife, and tend to be well developed. 

“We are way back in this regard” says Girma Timer, Tourist Development and Marketing director at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MoCT). “Our infant tourism industry cannot be compared to these countries” he adds. 

High-quality tour and travel operators, convenient and up-to-par hotels, restaurants and most importantly, skilled tour guides who can deliver knowledge-based services are also the important elements for tourism development. There are now more than 300 tour and travel operators legally registered in Ethiopia, despite the fact that an estimated 1,000 operators are participating in the tour and travel industry. The number of high-quality hotels in the country now total 750, which is up from 157 six years ago. 

Still, all these developments over the past few years begs the question: are these providers delivering the best services with reasonable prices?

Sylvie Ingram, a tourist from Canada who has been touring the southern part of the country, told EBR that though hotels are readily available, the standards and cleanness need improvement. “The plumbing and electricity supplies aren’t smooth in addition to the [inconsistency] of the weak internet connection makes the visit less comforting.” However, Sylvie says that she and her friends were overwhelmed by the hospitality of the people, the peace and security they felt, as well as the special respect they received as women. 

The prices of hotels and other complementary services are important factors for tourist attraction. Some note that hotel reservations in Ethiopia are expensive, especially compared with Kenya or Tanzania. While a high-quality standard hotel room can be found in Kenya or Tanzania for roughly USD50-60 a night, a similar hotel in Ethiopia would cost at least USD80. 

According to Girma, director of tourist development at the MoCT, the main reason why hotel service in Ethiopia is expensive is because of the unmatched supply and demand gap. If there were a lot more higher-quality hotels, the price of each would go down and could make Ethiopia a more desirable tourist destination given the large amount of tourist attractions and comfortable weather, he says.

Another reason that hotels are expensive is the  tradition of fetching substantial margins in trade and other services. “People who invested a lot of money want their money back very soon with high profits,” says one tour operator, who spoke to EBR on the condition of anonymity, “that is why hotels are expensive in the country.” One hotelier agrees with these comments but says the solution for the challenge of hotel pricing is encouraging and providing different incentives to investors to invest in the sector. The rationale for this remedy is that when there are several hotels that deliver similar services, competition will result in delivering of best services with reasonable prices to consumers. 

Number of tourist inflow and revenueAnother challenge the industry is facing is a fraudulent conducts of actors in the sector -- there have been reports of incidents in which tour operators disappear after receiving money from tourists. There is a well-established and organized association of tour and travel operators who work closely with the government and its members. The Association ensures that each member company works in accordance with the principles and ethics of tour and travel. 

According to the association president, Gezahegn Anberbiru, the organization also works to remedy problems and complaints brought by tourists. The association takes legal measures in conjunction with the government on those who violate the code of conduct. The association has now 200 members out of the 320 legally operating in the country according to Gezahegn. The government has been working to remedy another weak spot of the tourism industry: marketing and promotion. The MoCT has been facilitating the participation of local tour and travel operators working in international tourism and travel fairs in an attempt to introduce their tour and travel packages to potential consumers. Along with this effort, press releases and promotional and marketing materials have also been throughout the world via Ethiopian Embassies and Consular Offices. However, some feel that these efforts are not well-coordinated and could be improved. With the recent development of the sector, several complicated challenges lie ahead. Understanding this, the Ethiopian Tourism Transformation Council, led by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, was launched in March 2014. The Council hopes to lead and monitor the development of the industry and is comprised of major stakeholders.

Even though the tourism industry faces a number of problems and challenges, there are signs that things are moving in a new direction. Ethiopia has now become one of the conference tourism centers of Africa, especially since Addis Ababa is the home of the African Union and other several international organizations, including the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). However, the industry needs a strategy to reinvigorate itself; one comprised of policy, regulatory and institutional frameworks with sufficient incentives to stimulate the development of supply capacity in national markets.

If not led properly, the tourism industry could bring economic, environmental and cultural hazards to Ethiopia by attracting visitors who could potentially damage historical sites and local economies. If done properly, the industry could help contribute to the development of Ethiopia writ large, helping move the country closer to its goal of becoming a middle income country. It remains to be seen what is in store for the tourism sector, but it’s clear that it’s the next frontier in the development of the Ethiopian economy.

2nd Year . June 2014 . No.15

Berihun Mekonnen

EBR Staff Writter

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