27 October 2018

Ethiopia: Tourism Industry Thirsts for Simpler Solutions

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The government has come up with various bureaucracies and invests public money every year to improve the tourism industry. But a much better strategy would be if bottom-up approaches are employed to address glaring annoyances, writes AMBESSAW ASSEGUED(assegued@anfilo.com).

The existentialist who subscribes to no cause or has no belief in any human construct and surrenders to the natural laws that govern our universe is a rare species in Ethiopia. It seems to be our fate to forever fret and worry about everything, big and small, even over things where we cannot possibly have the minutest influence, particularly when it comes to our country.

"I attribute my present sense of peace and harmony to my belief that the gods have finally heard my prayer," says a man to his friend in a heated dinner conversation on current political affairs. "I used to say, 'Please gods, find someone other than me to worry about Ethiopia.' Look what happened! The gods have found Abiy to do that for me."

The new crew of ministers and government officials, even the most jaded among them, will have to keep awake at night trying to deal with all the problems that face Ethiopia.

Sometimes, big national problems can be solved with simple solutions that require no appointment of lofty sounding boards, commissions or committees. If major problems can be encapsulated into small areas like, for instance, privatised historical property like Taitu Hotel in Piassa, which can be used as a springboard to formulate solutions for some of our problems.

Many tourists come to the hotel, mostly because it is cheap and for its convenient location. Perhaps, a few may choose this grand and venerable hotelier for its past connection to Evelyn Waugh's satirical novel, Scoop.

The hotel has an even loftier history, however, than the accounts of a brief stay of the eccentric adventures of a conceited war correspondent. Waugh bases the story of Scoop on the time when he found himself housed there with a motley collection of newspaper men at the beginning of hostilities during the second Ethio-Italian in 1935.

There is also the splendid legend of Menelik II who takes frequent trips around the city to inspect the construction of roads and bridges in the new city. On his return trips to his palace, the emperor is intercepted by a budding population of Greek and Armenian merchants and confectioners who press upon him to partake and be entertained with European sweets, wine and delicacies.

To the annoyance of Empress Taitu, his consort, the imperial entourage will frequently stop to be entertained and be delayed to the geber, the mid-day feast waiting at the palace. The legend is that she commissions and builds the hotel as a stopover for Menilik on these expeditions and to keep a close eye on her husband's escapades.

With this and many other rich stories, exquisite architectural features, open landscape, sweeping views of the capital, shaded verandas, brightly-lit rooms, bay windows that open to gardens, superbly crafted woodwork, splendidly laid stone masonry and with its airy ceilings, Taitu Hotel should be a top-tier venue for well-heeled travelers.

Instead, it caters to the tourist crowd that can put up with broken fixtures, splintered floors and ill-kept bathrooms. Let us not mention the hotel grounds that house a clatter of haphazardly placed containers and offices rented out to tour operators, and film and newspaper producers.

The story of Taitu Hotel could easily encapsulate the current situation of Ethiopia as a tourist destination. Endowed with untold natural and cultural treasures, we stagger around confused, trying to find a way to build a viable tourist industry. This, despite the fact that the nation is, among many other attributes, the land of origins. And this claim is not vanity.

The fact that rich cultural and historical heritages are neglected, and the infrastructure needed to develop the industry has collapsed is not much argued. Also, there is no argument that the country is endowed with an enviable trove of tourism resources.

Ethiopia is the origin of Arabica coffee and the only place on the planet where coffee grows naturally in the wild; it is home to hundreds of endemic flora and fauna; and a place where unique habitats of highland moors and Afro-alpine rainforests are supported.

It is a country where a myriad of streams, creeks, lakes and rivers grace its natural landscapes; a place where many of the oldest Christian, Islamic and indigenous practices still flourish; multitudes of cultures and languages have evolved; a refined national cuisine with extraordinary taste, smell, texture and colour has enriched the lives of its citizens; and cultivated seed varieties of wheat, beans, peas and teffhave developed making Ethiopia a true seed-bank.

Despite all these apparent advantages, a solution to bring about a transformation of the tourist industry has eluded us. The government stumbles to find solutions by granting the development of hotels through tax incentives and duty-free privileges with little success.

Its other solutions have been to erect bureaucracies as if that alone will do the trick. On the federal level there is the Ministry of Tourism & Culture and Tourism Ethiopia; the National Tourism Board; Tourism Ethiopia; Hotel & Tourism Works Training Center; and then, of course, each regional state has its own bureaucracy, as do all the city administrations around the country. There is no rhyme or reason to the management of the tourism industry in Ethiopia.

Simple solutions that can bring about transformation are seldom considered. In the case of Taitu Hotel, transformation of the property can take place with reasonable investment made in upgrading the plumbing, electricity, finishes and fixtures of the hotel.

The landscape can also be repaired with minimal effort, creating a world-class garden that can create an asset for the city; and implementing a rigid and thorough cleaning and maintenance routines will improve the property and drive well-to-do tourists to the hotel.

If a small privatized hotel property like Taitu is challenged to emerge out of the doldrums of the past century, when Waugh wandered its corridors, we must wonder what the fate of the planned privatization of government enterprises will be. Let us be very careful as we go ahead with these grandiose plans for our public institutions and country. It is hoped that our leaders will thrive to find simple solutions to our big national problems.

Ethiopia

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