Ethiopia has significant potential to create a competitive tourism industry, given the nation's long history and lingo-cultural diversity. But poor management of the industry is exacting a heavy toll, writes Asrat Begashaw.
Ethiopia possesses remarkable culture and tourism potential in its unique and mostly unexplored cultural, historical, archaeological and natural resources. Those resources are key to attract visitors and are the basis on which to build a strong tourism industry.
With about 3,000 years of indigenous history, and more than 80 ethnic communities with diverse languages, cultures and traditions, Ethiopia stands out as one of the most unique countries in Africa. However, the tourism industry in Ethiopia could be legitimately described as one that is still in its infancy.
This is despite tourism being an important component of the service economy. It plays a crucial role in generating foreign exchange, creating employment opportunities, promoting industries and improving domestic wealth.
Despite Ethiopia possessing astonishing culture and tourism potential, the country has failed to derive significant benefit from the sector thus far. This poor performance is attributed to short-sighted policies and poor implementation, weak promotion and marketing, lack of skilled human power, little funding and a lack of tourist-related infrastructure.
The fundamental pillars of a sustainable tourism development plan must include the adaptation of best practices as they relate to policy making, regulation and institutional frameworks, tourism product development, branding and tourism marketing. All of these are poorly utilised by the government in Ethiopia.
There should also be investment in tourism facilities and services, human resource development, tourism support infrastructure and services, tourist safety and security, tourism research and development, conservation and preservation of natural and cultural resources and tourism development. Of course, there are initiatives in this regard also, but they are not enough to make the industry competitive on the global stage.
Even though the country is rich with cultural mosaics of diverse ethnographic attractions, this potential is not properly developed or integrated within the given tourism attractions of the country. On the other hand, though festivals attract international tourists as well as a high number of domestic visitors, they are not well developed as tourism products, especially in terms of services provision facilities and maximisation for economic impacts.
The status of landscapes that could be great attractions is just as worrying. In many cases, there is a lack of strategy and integrated planning to develop tourism options or potential, where the tourism facilities and services are very limited, and services are often provided in an informal way.
In the absence of proper destination development, or strategic management plans and operational guidelines in place, one cannot find an increasing number of visitors. Project implementation locations, for instance, are already causing significant negative impacts, including accumulation of solid waste and informal camping without minimal planning and infrastructure.
Just as crucial to point out are the country's national parks, mainly financed through public funds and poorly managed. As they are not operated as market-oriented organisations, their commercial values have not been effectively developed. There has also been little effort made to establish a connection between the investment made in these national parks and the revenues generated and the benefits derived by local peoples and the local economy. The lack of political commitment, capacity and awareness are well regarded as the causes for under development of the wildlife industry in Ethiopia.
It is easily evident that the nation's tourism industry is underperforming despite the potential it has. Three years of political instability have also not helped. But it is a problem that can be addressed with the right tools, strategies and political will. The focus should be on identifying the country's historic, cultural, wildlife and natural resources to develop responsible and sustainable tourism through the participation of the private sector and local community.
There is an urgent need for the government to improve competitiveness in the international tourism market, turning Ethiopia into a preferred destination in Africa and building on the direct benefits that can be had.
We need to build a tourism industry that makes important contributions in earning and conserving foreign exchange, and which integrates into economic growth and development. Extensive employment opportunities can be created for communities close to tourist destinations, and the government can work to ensure communities benefit through a wider distribution of income, as well as enhancing community participation in decision making.
More specifically, Ethiopia should focus on human resource development and infrastructure development, strengthening information and management capacity, service improvement and promotion of domestic tourism.
A great deal of the work rests on the Ministry of Culture & Tourism and Tourism Ethiopia to create a conducive environment and work hard to identify the fundamental cultural and tourism concerns of Ethiopia. If there is a will - as there already are communities and a private sector ready to play a crucial part - there will surely be a way.