pandemic security toll hopeful tourism

Pandemic, Security Toll Hopeful Tourism

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to assert that the Covid-19 pandemic hit the global hospitality sector the hardest. It is no different in Ethiopia, a nation that has seen a rise in the flow of tourists for successive years before the pandemic turned things upside down. Now, at a time when the effect of the pandemic appears to be easing a little, good news is still scant for the Ethiopian tourism sector with war on its footsteps, writes Bamlak Befekadu.

On the morning of December 3, 2021, the Oromia Culture and Tourism Bureau (OCTB) was deserted. While the bureau’s head was in the State of Amhara responding to the Prime Minister’s call for civil servants to join him on the battlefield, other officers were at the Sheraton Addis Hotel, celebrating the naming of Wenchi as the best tourism village by the UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Wenchi, a crater lake found 98 km west of Addis Ababa, is the highest volcano lake in Ethiopia. Alongside Mount Dendi—the second-highest volcano located just 13.5 km from Wenchi in the State of Oromia—the area is one of the target sites for a mega tourism project launched by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD).

The recognition is good news for OCTB which is undergoing revitalized efforts to reap benefits of the state’s immense tourism potential. It has been months now since paid ads of the bureau have been surfacing all over social media.

The good news was badly needed for the sector experiencing deep struggles. Haile Resort Hawassa, part of Haile Gebreselassie’s hotel chain, was among the hardest hit by the economic slowdown that followed the pandemic. Resting on 52,000 square meters of land, the resort employs over 300 people and had to close off amenities and services including its meeting halls and ballrooms as bookings dropped to virtually zero in early- and mid-2020.

“Scenes at the hotel seem to slowly be getting back to normal,” says Firesew Mekuria, Marketing Manager of the chain. In an effort to attract patrons, the resort had to cut rates for its 126 rooms by as much as half—to around USD40 to 50. Now, the establishment is on the path of normalcy with business picking up again, but slowly. Domestic tourism is playing a big role in the revival. Occupancy rates are climbing and are currently near 60Pct, near to the lower end of standard occupancy rates. For many hotels, ideal occupancy rates are between 70 and 95Pct. Of course, this depends on the number of rooms, location, and type of hotel. Target guests, pricing, and other variables also factor into occupancy levels.

How the market is picking up for some hotels doesn’t show the entire picture of the industry. Indeed, the picture is varied and the once hopeful tourism sector still requires more good stories.

Berhanalem Temesgen, 25, who was wandering around the crowded streets of Megenagna, fled Lalibela, in North Wollo zone of the State of Amhara, to save her life. Once a tour guide in the historical town with knowledge of three foreign languages including French and Italian, EBR found her scanning for vacancies posted on walls and street poles.
“I used to make as much as ETB50,000 in just the few months of the high season,” she recalls. Now, that is only a has been.

The pandemic hit the planet and took its toll on the service sector in general, and hospitality in particular. Deteriorating security and the war worsened the situation, leaving no sign of hope for Berhanalem and her colleagues. As the Christmas season fast approaches, it sticks a knife into memories of good times when tourists from both home and abroad used to stream to Lalibela.
“Most of my colleagues in the industry have changed their line of work while others have joined the regional Special Forces.”Berhanalem told EBR.

As much as hotels in the capital and other states are entertaining the situation of getting back to normalcy, the hope of recovery for hotels in Bahir Dar, the capital of the State of Amhara, is in a worsened condition, according to Wondwosen Fentie, General Manager of the three-star Nova Hotel.”The Hotel had managed to grow its occupancy rates up to 70Pct after a period of inactivity last year, but the outbreak of the conflict has undone all the hard work and progress—with occupancy below 10Pct now,” said Wondwossen.

Similar to hotels in Bahir Dar, the hospitality industry was beginning to see signs of recovery following a lost year caused by the pandemic. Occupancy rates that were lingering at around 10Pct went up, signaling a slow return to pre-pandemic levels. However, tourism, a major source of income for hotels, continues to languish.

Now, with the state of emergency, travel restrictions, and reluctance from tourists, occupancy rates are as low as 2Pct, with many in the industry left struggling to cover payroll and other operational costs.

According to a United Nations publication regarding socio-economic impacts of Covid-19 in Ethiopia ,The Addis Ababa Hotels Association (AHA)reported in April 2021 that 88Pct of its member hotels had either partially or fully closed operations as loss of revenue was estimated at USD35 million per month and more ten thousand employees were at risk of unemployment.

Business travelers account for over 90Pct of Addis Ababa’s tourist flows, according to Amha Bekele, General Manager of AHA. The average occupancy rate in the capital was around 67Pct in 2019. Though hotels are performing better and registering higher occupancies, industry players say the road to recovery is still far way. The increased number of bookings cannot singularly signify recovery, as rates would also need to grow from their current low levels, argues Ermiyas Alemu, industry insider and freelance consultant. “Some star-rated Addis Ababa hotels’ charging rates dropped by 75Pct compared to previous seasons,” said Ermiyas.

Ayalew Sisay (PhD), Director of Tour Operations at Chora Tours and former head of the Addis Ababa Culture and Tourism Bureau, doesn’t conceal his fear regarding the near-future fate of Ethiopian tourism due to security challenges in northern Ethiopia alongside the Omicron strain of Covid-19.”Stakeholders like government tourism bureaus should be working on enhancing the number of local tourist destinations and their image, to counter the gap left by diminished tourist traffic,” Ayalew said.

The functions of domestic tourism are numerous. It produces social, cultural, and financial benefits for the local population who might not otherwise be able to reap the fruits of their endowed local resources. As part of a strategy of pressurizing Ethiopia, western nations are pushing their citizens to leave the country and are thus sending off-putting messages and signals to anyone thinking of visiting Ethiopia. This evidences the need for government to enact a strategic change towards potent domestic tourism, Ayalew argues.

Several conferences initially planned to be held in Addis Ababa are also shifting venues to Nairobi and other African cities because of repeated pressure from western countries, particularly the United States, that are constantly issuing alarms for their citizens to leave Ethiopia immediately. This concern was recently echoed by Redwan Hussein, State Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was quoted by Addis Zemen, the oldest state-run newspaper in circulation, saying that “we have noticed that some international organizations are pressurized to not hold their conferences in Addis Ababa.”

Such developments strengthen Ayalew’s opinion that the better way to revive the sector is by promoting local tourism. Among the types of domestic tourism, hiking and trekking are growing in popularity, especially with urbanities. The trips are closely associated with journeys and pilgrimages to different monasteries and other religious and historic centers in the country. It is common to see colorful posters on taxi windows, telephone or electric poles promoting trips to various religious sites including Tsadkane Maryam—a monastery in the State of Amhara around 200 km from the capital.

Binyam Shifa, Founder of Addis Hiking, is considered a pioneer in the hiking business after first organizing trips eight years ago while working as a gym trainer. Addis Hiking is reputed to be the first to introduce hiking tours as a leisure activity to city dwellers. Promotions and marketing through social media platforms play a large role in the growing popularity of hiking. The business has expanded steadily since it first caught the attention of urbanites around a decade ago.

“Nowadays, my company has over 100 regular and 500 casual clients willing to pay an average of ETB600 for a one-day hiking trip,” Binyam explains. “If it includes camping, the fee goes for as high as ETB2,000 a day.”
“We’ve developed a virtual guide for potential tourists,” said Sileshi Girma, State Minister of Tourism, while also adding that his ministry is “working on facilitating tourist destinations with suitable accommodations and infrastructure.” Nonetheless, the solution put forward by the ministry and stakeholders does not seem to be satisfactory for businesses severely impacted by the pandemic and conflict.. EBR

10th Year • Jan 2022 • No. 103

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