A Rising Tide

Over the last ten years, Ethiopia has seen a steep rise in tourism numbers. 

The first half of the decade saw unprecedented levels of positive reporting on Ethiopian travel. With visitor numbers on the rise, major publications began waxing lyrical on the potential for a new tourism boom in Ethiopia. 

The country has started to shake off its historical bad PR from the droughts and famine that tore through the country in the early 80s. New lodges have sprung up across the country to accommodate the increasing visitor numbers, and Ethiopia is starting to compete for attention amongst the safari-first mindset of many international travellers and first time visitors to Africa. 

Number of international tourist arrivals 2008-2018, worldbank

Can Ethiopia Protect its Golden Egg?

The goose has certainly laid the golden egg.

It’s no surprise. The country has some of the most impressive landscapes, wilderness areas, wildlife and historic monuments in the world - and all of this sits atop a cultural fabric that’s so unique, and part of what makes travelling to the country so exciting.

There is no separating an experience in Ethiopia from the cultural fabric from which it's borne. That's what makes Ethiopia so hard to describe. It's incredibly diverse, and a single destination can be described a thousand ways.

There is now an opportunity for stakeholders to recognise that Ethiopia’s tourism industry deserves attention, investment, and protection. 

Brief history: the birth of tourism in Ethiopia

Meles Zenawi largely ignored tourism, arguing that it was too volatile to ever produce a sustainable income. At the same time, he invested heavily in Ethiopian Airlines which has been a driving force for the growth of tourism in the country over the last ten years. 

Pioneering tour operators and hoteliers tentatively began operations in niche markets - and some even have had a modicum of success. 

At the time, the only criteria to become a tour operator was the ability to buy three new cars. These vehicles were tax free, so hundreds of Addis businessmen signed up for an operator's license in order to obtain the tax-exempt wheels. 

Many of the newly formed tour operators attempted to run trips, but soon found the demands of international travellers for top-end hotels and luxury services beyond the capacity of the country. 

Inevitably, many settled for using their vehicles for other purposes. 

These days there are probably no more than 20 Addis based ground-handlers with sufficient knowledge and skill to satisfy the demands of the foreign operators and their clients - but they still have to carefully set expectations

The country is beautiful, its history fascinating and scenery stunning - but the infrastructure is poor. A message many travellers don’t want to hear, or don’t properly internalise before arriving. 

Lalibela: traffic jam on the road to heaven

Lalibela is Ethiopia’s most famous travel destination. A World Heritage Site, the town’s ancient rock-hewn churches are often dubbed the eighth wonder of the world.  

With traveller numbers on the rise, hotels sprang up to meet the demand - albeit with little architectural style to reflect the 13th century site. 

The town lacks a good water supply, and the heavy in flow of travellers was quick to pump it dry. Everyone who visited wanted to see the churches after breakfast, creating bottlenecks.

On a good day in high season, over 300 travellers could cram into St George’s Church. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was the Sistine Chapel, not a centuries old rock-hewn church in a small highland town in Ethiopia. 

Timed ticketing could have solved this problem - but no such system was put in place. 

Rock churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia

Simien Mountains: a lesson in unit economics

The Simien Mountains are another popular destination along the historic north circuit

When a lodge was built some fifteen years ago, tourist numbers increased eight times over but the Ethiopia Wildlife Conservation Department (EWCA) - the gatekeepers to the park - stubbornly left the price for a 12-seater bus at just 20 birr instead of increasing the price of an entrance fee.

Some 40,000 tourists visited the Simien Mountains National Park in 2019, but there are still no proper toilets or other facilities

All the while, the wildlife increasingly retreats into the hinterland.

Two people sitting on cliff edge looking at the view in the Simien Mountains

Guides and scouts increased their prices and revenues but the country made very little from the new bonanza. The ideal solution would be fewer tourists passing through the park gate but with higher entrance fees. 

Meanwhile the tourist authorities seem set on increasing numbers and building more lodges. Environmentalists argue that this process has to be reversed but there is no sign of a change of direction at the present time.

The question has to be asked whether the Ethiopian Ministry of Tourism and Culture is driving the market, or are they just relying on the nationalised airline to set the pace? Seen as a beacon of success, Ethiopian Airlines increases its revenue by volumes rather than by price in a competitive industry. 

Clearly there is only so much that they can charge for a ticket from Frankfurt to Addis before travellers find that it’s cheaper to use other carriers (even if they have to pay more for internal flights). The emphasis is placed on visitor numbers, not on unit prices. 

In this context, Ethiopia is forced to take more tourists in key destinations that are just not ready for the numbers.

Scout with rifle spreading arms in front of landscape in the Simien Mountains

Marketing to new audiences

The focus on traveller numbers rather than infrastructure development causes issues in other areas, too. 

The Omo Valley can leave visitors with mixed feelings. There is a voyeuristic element to visits here, and photos are now taken on a ‘pay per click’ basis, meaning it is also very transactional. 

Litter has become a serious problem in the Danakil Depression. The trails to Erta Ale and Dallol are filled with plastic bottles - although tour operators in the region have taken steps to prevent this from worsening. 

It’s clear that investment needs to be made to support the infrastructure of the travel focal points. Failing this, tourism needs to expand to different parts of the country at different times of year. 

There is certainly a market for different tourist profiles, and marketing towards a younger crowd - combined with the development of basic infrastructure in other places in the country - could help reduce bottlenecks and pressures on small regions as traveller numbers continue to increase.