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Ethiopia: From Spotlight to the Shadows: Ethiopia’s Tourism Odyssey Hangs in the Balance

Addis Abeba — In the heart of East Africa, Ethiopia unfurls a mosaic of marvels recently thrust into the limelight by UNESCO’s accolades, signaling a tourism renaissance. From the towering majesty of the Bale Mountains to the serene retreats of Lepis Eco Tourism Village, the nation’s canvas is rich with the strokes of history and the vibrant hues of cultural festivities like Shawwal Eid.

Ethiopia is gradually placing its bets on the allure of its rich cultural tapestry and breathtaking landscapes, especially after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assumed power in 2018. The current administration is trying to champion the hospitality and tourism sector, steering it into the limelight as a key driver for growth and prosperity.

With a series of government-led initiatives designed to elevate the tourism experience, Ethiopia is not only trying to beckon travelers from around the globe but also paving the way for a surge in local economic opportunities.

The inauguration of the Halala Kela Resort last year represents a critical element of Prime Minister Abiy’s administration endeavor designed to optimize the utilization of the area’s natural resources, thereby facilitating the growth of greenery attraction sites nationwide.

The recent initiatives, prominently featuring mega projects such as the Chebera Churchura Elephant Paw Lodge, also occupy a central role in the enterprises spearheaded by the government.

Last week, Prime Minister Abiy inaugurated the awe-inspiring Chebera Churchura Elephant Paw Lodge, a cornerstone of his administration’s ambitious ‘Dine for Ethiopia’ mega project.

Nestled in the verdant heart of the Dawuro Zone in South West Ethiopia Regional State, this luxurious retreat emerges as a dazzling showcase of Ethiopia’s rich natural endowments, inviting the world to witness the country’s unfolding renaissance in eco-tourism.

Yet, beneath the allure, a specter of unrest casts a long shadow, threatening to dim the burgeoning promise of tourism. As whispers of uncertainty deter would-be explorers, the urgency for peace grows, lest the world remain deprived of Ethiopia’s full splendor.

Despite significant investment in tourism initiatives, Ethiopia confronts considerable challenges, according to industry players. As international tourism experiences a resurgence in the aftermath of the pandemic, ongoing regional conflicts pose a risk to Ethiopia’s emergence as a leading travel destination. An authority in the field revealed to Addis Standard, “The potential is undeniable, but instability acts as a handbrake on progress.”

Research indicates that the hospitality industry was formerly a pivotal element in Ethiopia’s economic advancement, contributing significantly to the nation’s economic growth. It was instrumental in creating jobs, generating income, accruing foreign exchange, and providing social advantages.

Subsequent to 2019, the sector has encountered a multitude of challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic conflict, drought conditions, and fiscal vulnerabilities. The World Travel & Tourism Council‘s most recent analysis highlights that Ethiopia’s travel and tourism sector has undergone marked volatility from 2019 to 2022, largely as a result of the worldwide COVID-19 health crisis and ongoing internal strife.

Conflicts, not merely local disturbances, ravage the tourism sector.”Nahom Admasu, managing director of Pleasure Ethiopia Tour and Travel Agency

In the year 2019, the travel and tourism sector was a substantial contributor to Ethiopia’s economy, representing 6.3% of the gross domestic product (GDP). By the year 2022, the sector’s direct contribution to GDP had reached ETB 329.7 billion (equivalent to USD 6.3 billion), which constituted 5.6% of the total economy. This figure indicated a recuperation from the decline witnessed in 2020, yet it remained a diminution from the levels seen in 2019.

The employment scenario within Ethiopia’s travel and tourism sector also experienced a decline in 2022 when contrasted with 2019 figures. As per the World Travel & Tourism Council’s report, the sector directly sustained 645,113 jobs in 2022. While this number is substantial, it falls short of the employment levels recorded during the pre-pandemic era.

From prominence to uncertainty

Industry experts and stakeholders interviewed by Addis Standard have also depicted the grim state of affairs for the tourism sector, attributing its downturn to persistent conflicts and instability across several regions. They have highlighted a marked decrease in the number of tourists, observing that current visitors are predominantly those attending conferences in Addis Abeba.

This decline is further exacerbated as numerous nations have enacted travel restrictions on Ethiopia, citing concerns over the lack of security in different parts of the country.

The resurgence of conflict involving the non-state militia, Fano, instigated by alterations in regional security arrangements, has drained optimism from the once-bustling locales of Gondar and the tranquil trails of Lalibela.

A local tour guide, speaking under the weight of the current tensions, stated, “Peace, not visitors,” reflecting the stagnation that has gripped the tourism sector.

While the tour guide acknowledged the region’s wealth of attractions, including Gondar’s historic sites, the Northern Mountains, the churches of Lalibela, and Lake Tana in Bahir Dar, he voiced deep-seated apprehensions regarding the tourism industry’s trajectory.

He warned that should the unrest and instability persist, the livelihoods of numerous individuals employed within the industry could be imperiled, potentially leaving them without the means to support their families.

“Peace is the lifeline of the tourism industry,” Nahom Admasu, managing director of Pleasure Ethiopia Tour and Travel Agency, stressed with a sense of immediacy.

As an active participant in the preeminent Ethiopian Tour Organizations Association, Nahom has directly observed the severe repercussions that even minimal unrest can have on the sector. According to him, the cascade of flight cancellations, unoccupied accommodations, and quiet dining establishments are indicative of foregone reservations, the impact of which resonates down the entire tourism value chain, affecting entities from thriving airlines to service providers.

“Peace is the missing polish for Ethiopia’s tourism crown,” lamented Nahom, who observed that tourists stay away, leaving not just empty streets but empty coffers.

“Foreign currency, the lifeblood of development, slips through our grasp, deepening our economic woes,” emphasized Nahom. “Conflicts, not merely local disturbances, ravage the tourism sector.”

Nahom indicates the travel restrictions imposed due to the Tigray War severely impeded tourist arrivals, and the widespread effects of instability led to the closure of tour operations and the exodus of essential professionals. With Ethiopia’s reputation compromised, he says the endeavor to attract tourists has become an exceedingly difficult challenge.

Fitsum Gezahegn, director of the Ethiopian Tour Organizations Association, an entity dedicated to promoting the nation and drawing tourists, has acknowledged the sharp decline in tourist arrivals as a consequence of Ethiopia’s persistent conflicts. “Ethiopia’s vibrant tapestry of ancient wonders and bustling markets lies tragically muted, its colors bleeding away under the weight of ongoing conflicts.”

Despite the presence of a few daring visitors who manage to overcome the hurdles of travel to Ethiopia, Fitaum maintains that their numbers are merely a fraction of what the country could potentially attract. “High travel costs, limited availability, and gnawing safety concerns keep the majority of adventurers at bay.”

Additionally, industry observers note that travel bans, arising from stringent restrictions, are further suffocating the vitality of the tourism sector. “Unprecedented challenges are currently facing the Ethiopian tourism industry despite its existence for the past 50 years,” the director stated to Addis Standard.

Fitsum underscored the profound impact of the absence of peace in regions renowned for Ethiopia’s cultural, historical, and natural treasures on the tourism sector as a whole. He detailed that the ripple effects of the industry’s decline are pervasive, affecting individuals at every level of society, with a notable surge in unemployment rates among those who were once gainfully employed in tourism.

By drawing a compelling analogy, the director likened the current turmoil within the tourism industry to the potential consequences that would ensue from impeding the exports of coffee and oilseeds, vital commodities in Ethiopia’s export portfolio.

He highlighted that the repercussions of ongoing conflicts extend beyond mere economic dimensions, impairing domestic tourism as well. With a strong call to action, Fitaum ardently championed the cause of enduring peace and implored all factions involved in the conflict to initiate constructive dialogue, with the aim of devising a solution that promotes stability and rejuvenates the tourism industry.

Experts in the domain caution that the persistent conflicts will gravely affect the hotel industry, which is closely intertwined with the fortunes of the tourism sector. Establishments in Addis Abeba and other tourist hotspots have noted a marked decrease in revenue, corresponding with the reduction in tourist visits.

Getahun Alemu, President of the Ethiopian Tourism and Hotels Market Association, has articulated the catastrophic effects of both armed conflict and the so-called “diplomatic war” on the tourism industry. He referenced instances during the Tigray War where embassies disseminated alarmist propaganda, alleging that Addis Abeba was encircled and that commercial aircraft might be at risk of being targeted.

“Such negativity has a devastating effect on tourism,” he stated.

Despite recognizing the destruction caused by the conflict, Getahun posits that the “diplomatic war” has exacted a more substantial toll.

The diplomatic war has exacted a more substantial toll.”Getahun Alemu, President of the Ethiopian Tourism and Hotels Market Association

In light of the unrest present in various regions, the association is deliberately channeling its resources to enhance the visibility of southern Ethiopia’s multitude of tourist attractions. The president highlighted the necessity of shifting the promotional focus, asserting, “We cannot solely rely on northern Ethiopia, which is currently facing conflict. Even if one area experiences unrest, we must actively promote peaceful regions to maintain tourist flow.”

Subsequent to the cessation of hostilities in the Tigray war, the association has undertaken initiatives to provide training and structural support to hospitality establishments in Bahir Dar, Lalibela, and Wollo. Furthermore, the association’s members have pledged to undertake the reorganization of hotels within the Amhara region following the resolution of the conflict.

Resilience in the face of unrest

Despite the devastation wrought by the protracted war in Tigray and its adverse effects on neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar, there is a faint yet discernible spark of recovery in the tourism sector.

A report from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) provides a modest degree of encouragement, indicating a 28% increase in national tourism following the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) between the federal government and forces in Tigray.

The most recent analysis from the World Travel & Tourism Council suggests that Ethiopia’s travel and tourism sector has demonstrated notable resilience amidst global adversities, with an encouraging pattern of recovery becoming apparent by the year 2022. Although the sector has not entirely rebounded to the zenith of its performance in 2019, the report indicates that the sector is well-positioned for sustained growth and an ongoing contribution to the nation’s economic fabric.

According to the report, a pivotal element of Ethiopia’s travel and tourism revenue, visitors’ spending, reached ETB193.1 billion (equivalent to $3.7 billion) in 2022. This represents a significant increase from the figures recorded in 2019, underscoring the enduring allure of Ethiopia as a tourism destination.

Projections for the year 2023 anticipate further augmentation, with the number of international tourists expected to swell, thereby generating increased expenditures.

Authorities have also observed indications of revitalization within the tourism industry. Officials also say there is a spark of recovery in the tourism sector. Recently, the Addis Abeba Bureau of Culture, Arts, and Tourism announced that, during the first three months of the current fiscal year, the tourism sector in the capital has generated a substantial economic inflow exceeding 17.25 billion birr.

Haftay Gebreegziabher, deputy head of the Bureau, reported to the state media that the capital welcomed approximately 268,000 international tourists during the first three months of the current budget year.

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