the overlooked local

The Overlooked Local Tourism Sector

Being home to many internationally-acclaimed historical sites, Ethiopia has an immense local tourism potential. But the country has never capitalized on the opportunity. Adding to the minimal travelling habit amongst Ethiopians, the sector is still at its infancy. Tour companies also give more attention to international tourists, largely because it garners foreign currency. Investors are not interested in joining the local tourism sector as there is a sentiment that it is a low rate-of-return investment. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is attempting to create awareness amongst the public, but little has been achieved thus far. EBR’s Kiya Ali explores.

Kidist T. Woldegebriel, a travel fanatic, has toured four continents visiting nine countries since graduating from university three years ago. Even though her monthly gross salary of ETB15,000 does not allow her to travel as much as she wants, Kidist does not hesitate to save some money for her travels. Recently, she managed to save ETB100,000 and traveled to Europe where she stayed for a week. Despite her obsession with travelling, however, Kidist has never been interested in visiting tourist attraction sites found in her own country, Ethiopia.
“Price asked by tour operators to visit local tourist attraction areas is very expensive. It is better to travel outside of Ethiopia. Tour companies charge locals the same price as international tourists,” she says. “This, coupled with political instability, discouraged me to travel within Ethiopia.”

Many Ethiopians share the feelings of Kidist. With ethnic conflicts and political violence becoming normal in present day Ethiopia, internal tourist numbers are nose-diving.

People move from place to place for various reasons such as for conferences and to visit relatives, among others. But in Ethiopia, local tourism is largely connected with religious rituals and the travelling to churches and mosques throughout the country. Yet, the culture of travelling in and out of the country is not well-practiced amongst Ethiopians.

The market for domestic tourism has been downplayed despite its potential contributions towards job creation, heritage protection, regional integration, and cross-cultural understanding. Although government and tour companies strive for and exert more effort on international tourists, very low attention is given to local tourism.

The report published by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MoCT) indicates that 23.4 million domestic tourists visited different attractions in the past fiscal year, standing at 62Pct of its target. Although the Ministry has not published a single report regarding domestic tourism earnings, it is expectedly way lower than the reported foreign exchange earned from international tourists, which was USD3.4 billion in the past fiscal year.

“Local tourism still lags far behind international tourism. The culture of visiting nearby natural and historical heritages amongst locals, let alone far-off national attractions, is negligible,” argues Assefa Asrat, Manager of Ton Rave Tour and Travel Agency. “Because of this, we tend to focus on other target customers (visitors from France, Belgium and Switzerland), rather than local tourists.”

There are different factors hindering domestic tourism development, one of which is the lack of promotion and proper marketing strategy. For example, the peak season for international visitors is from September to the end of January and many tour operating companies remain idle for the remaining months, instead of focusing on domestic tourism. “Instead of remaining idle for almost six months, tour companies and hotels should promote and exploit the potential of domestic tourism effectively,” says Demeke Getahun, a tour operator and guide. “For several reasons this is an area which has never received enough attention.”

Experts, who have witnessed this, say the lack of targeted marketing by tour companies is the major reason for local tourists’ ignorance and lack of interest in exploring natural and historical places in their own country.

Kibrom believes this would not have been the case had children been educated about travelling and got the opportunity to visit historical sites. In the past, numerous efforts have been made by various people and organizations to plant the habit of traveling and visiting from childhood. A decade ago, there were different groups arranging field trips with the motto “Hagerihin Ewek” (“Know Your Country”) which fostered cultural tourism. This was short-lived, however.

Additionally, Kibrom blames media outlets, moviemakers, music producers, as well as other entertainment programs for rather promoting tourist attraction sites in Dubai, UAE and Mombasa, Kenya, for example. “If such media professionals had recorded their scenes in Ethiopian historical places, they would have stimulated the interest of many locals. Unfortunately, this is not happening.

The other major challenge of the local tourism sector is the high amount of money required. “On average, renting a car costs ETB2,800 daily. When adding accommodation and meal costs, the required amount could go as high as ETB6,000 daily, which is unaffordable by the majority,” Kibrom said. For instance, to visit parts of the Semien Mountain National Park, international visitors take two to 17 days, including treks between the park and Lalibela, spending, on average, around ETB5,000 daily. However, local tourists cannot do this because they are constrained in terms of money compared to international tourists.

The lack of skill and knowledge amongst civil servants is the other bottleneck. “The inefficient civil service has its share in the poor performance of the local tourism sector. Both local and federal government officials, who are leading the show from the top, are selected on the basis of their loyalty to the ruling party, instead of being assigned on merit,” Demeke argues. “The officials also lack enthusiasm and passion for tourism—the absence of which has discouraged many to invest in the local tourism sector. Officials are also not getting chances to visit other countries for experience sharing.”

Meanwhile, the fast-improving information and communications infrastructure, coupled with the growing population, present vast opportunities for domestic tourism. Road infrastructure is one avenue through which the country’s huge domestic tourism potential could be tapped. By the end of 2017/18 fiscal year, Ethiopia’s all-weather road network reached 126,773 kilometers, which is only 37Pct of the required road network in the country. The Ethiopian Roads Authority plans to build an additional 10,000 kilometers of road at a cost of ETB41 billion in the coming year. Capitalizing on these opportunities, the MoCT launched a ten-year roadmap in 2015, aiming to guide tourism activities in Ethiopia.

Affirming that local tourism is less seasonal and can provide a base level of business for primary and secondary destinations year-round and especially during international off-seasons, the roadmap directs special focus onto domestic market awareness creation via national awareness programs and campaigns to increase visitation habits of the public and develop the general tourism trade. Towards this, last July, the Ministry has launched a nationwide awareness program. During the program launching ceremony, Hirut Kassa (PhD.) Minister of Culture and Tourism said: “An Ethiopian must only consider oneself as a proud Ethiopian if s/he knows what the country has. Our aim is informing the public of this and the potential benefits of domestic tourism.”

Although there were some trials to push the local tourism forward during the past seven years, for instance, during Hailemariam Desalegn’s regime the government has established the Tourism Transformation Council to promote the sector, but it hasn’t bore fruit. Understanding such gaps, a new and separate department for local tourism has been established by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, starting operations since July 2019. “We are working to expand Hagerhin Ewek [literally meaning know your country] clubs in every ministry office and at regional levels,” Biniam Asrat, Team Leader of Domestic Tourism Directorate at the Ministry, said.

Despite such attention given to the sector, experts still argue to the contrary and that it is still not considered as priority by the government. “Low attention given to the sector is holding back the industry from flourishing. The capacity of the sector was officially recognized six years ago by the government and other stakeholders. Yet, agriculture and manufacturing sectors are given priory by the government. Tourism is still not considered as one of the economic pillars of the country,” Kumneger Teketel, Managing Director of OZZIE International Hotel Project Consultancy, explains.

Meanwhile, domestic tourism is a new trend emerging especially in urban areas like Addis Ababa. Hiking in groups, for instance, is growing in Addis. Run Africa, an Ethiopian athletics tourism company based in Addis Ababa, offers guided running, training and hiking excursions for outdoor enthusiasts of every fitness level. The company offers running packages and hiking tours in and around Addis Ababa for both locally-based and international visitors. Although the fees charged by Run Africa depends heavily on the trip destination, prices for in and around Addis Ababa range from ETB200 to 400 per person. One day hiking trips to destinations out of Addis range between ETB600 and 800 whilst weekend camping trips are usually charged at ETB1,800 to 2,000 per person.

“Our local clients comprise mainly of expatriates living in Addis Ababa and young Ethiopians from the emerging middle class who appreciate fitness, want to explore their surroundings, and are keen to experience adventure,” Ed Stevens, Manager of the company, explains. As an addendum to their business activities, Run Africa also organizes free events to expand local residents’ awareness of the benefits of physical exercise as well as the conservation of natural resources.

Hiking has a considerable impact on domestic tourism everywhere in the world.

It is, arguably, one of the most engaging methods of discovery. With both feet on the ground at walking pace, hikers see, feel, hear and smell 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. This specific branch of local tourism also brings an aspect of adventure for a specific market segment, according to Ed Stevens.

However, there are challenges that deter hiking companies from expanding their market. “In order to register as a tour operator in Ethiopia, numerous bureaucratic requirements exist including owning a modern four-wheel-drive vehicle, tents, and all sorts of other equipment,” Ed says. “Political unrest, limited payment systems options, and shortage of skilled personnel are additional challenges for Run Africa.”

Beyond such attempts, Kumneger stress strong marketing strategies and promotion must be developed by both the private and public sectors. “What is important, again, is that the government must consider both local and international tourism sectors as one of the major economic pillars of the economy as they could potentially bring positive change in the country’s macroeconomic outlook,” Kumneger concludes.

8th Year • Dec.16 – Jan.15 2020 • No. 81


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