Ethiopia: Running On Fumes - Ethiopian Tourism in 2020

With the government ending some of its travel restrictions that were in place due to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) in September, entrepreneurs in the tourism industry began to sense that things would slowly return to normal in an industry that had been completely at a stand still. Now the war in Tigray Regional State has made forecasts only more dim, reports MAYA MISIKIR, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.

It has been over a decade since the auspicious day when Tariku Mulugeta met a French guide in Gonder. He had barely started his career as a tour guide himself at Fasil Ghebbi in the city where he was born and raised. At the time, he spoke only English and Amharic, and a few phrases in French learned through self-help audiobooks. He met her while assisting a group from France that was visiting on a trip.

She knew Amharic and saw that he had an interest in giving tours in French. They ended up spending two hours in a restaurant that afternoon translating and writing down the details of Fasil Ghebbi, made up of a myriad of castles, churches and monasteries dating back to the 16th century. He learned it by heart and started giving tours in French shortly thereafter.

"I wasn't able to answer questions at first if there were any," he said. "I knew only what I needed to give that tour."

About a year following that, he caught the attention of a Frenchman who was there to visit the castles with his family. The man turned out to be the director at the Alliance Française in Addis Abeba, part of a global network of institutions promoting the French language. Curious to know how he spoke the language well and impressed by his grasp of a language that was self-taught, he offered him a scholarship on the spot should Tariku ever decide to come to the capital.

"Looking back, I think that was what helped me decide to stay on this course," Tariku said. "I left to Addis shortly after, and I enrolled in the class."

Despite his father's initial stern disapproval of his career path and the uncertain financial security associated with the job, his colourful career has now proved worthy of every chance he took on it. Just a fresh graduate from university with a degree in tourism management when he started out, Tariku now has over a decade of experience working across the country.

The 37-year-old speaks English, French and German and has been busy working as a freelancer since his move to Addis Abeba. Most of his clients are from German-speaking countries, and his work ethic and language skills have kept him busy despite the unpredictability that comes with being a freelancer.

"I never worried about work since I had clients who would request me at the tour companies," he said. "I always had work even in the off-seasons."

But the past year has been unlike any other for Tariku since he started work. The Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has wreaked havoc on the tourism industry, and his last gig was sometime back in March. International tourist numbers, which were nearing a million visitors annually over the past few years, dwindled to nil.

"It was like hell," he said. "There was no work, I couldn't go outside of the city, nor could I visit my family."

There are estimated to be over 2,000 tour guides operating across the nation, according to data from the Ethiopian Tour Guides Professional Association. Nearly 500 of these are licensed at the federal level and operate across the county like Tariku.

But little to no attention has been given to the fate of this part of the sector, according to Henok Tsegaye, the Association's executive secretary.

"Tour guides are the informal ambassadors that represent the country to people from all corners of the world," he said. "It's been upsetting to see how little has been done for them in this difficult time."

The Association, which was set up six months ago, already has 120 members and has been working toward organising seminars during this time without work. It is also lobbying for support from the government.

"There are many that aren't able to send their kids to school or pay their rent," said Henok. "We're trying to address these needs first."

In a bid to restart activities and prepare for operation under what is widely considered a "new normal," the Ministry of Culture & Tourism along with Tourism Ethiopia took a series of steps including crafting a Safe Travel Protocol and a Recovery Strategy. These were followed by stakeholder meetings, disinfection of destination sites and awareness-raising campaigns for those involved in the tourism value chain.

By August, the Ministry was well on its way to obtaining a COVID-19 Safe Travel Stamp from the World Travel & Tourism Council, a move expected to accredit the country in the eyes of international tourists and anticipated eagerly by many players in the industry. But the plan hit a snag when mandatory quarantine continued to be enforced by the Ministry of Health.

The communication between different government entities involved in the process wasn't coherent, according to Nahome Admassu, president of the 40-member-strong Talak Ethiopian Tour Operators Association.

"They didn't see eye to eye on some issues, so it became difficult to achieve," said Nahome. The Association was working on stopover tourism before switching to a recovery strategy once the pandemic took centre stage.

Tour operators under the Asociation who had used the benefit of tax exemption to import cars for their businesses suddenly found themselves at the business end of foreclosures. The Association on its part tried to get grace periods extended, but even those have now lapsed. The attempts to get the use of the cars temporarily changed to other services like rentals and keep the businesses afloat have not yielded any concrete answers yet.

"We've been going back and forth from one government office to another with little success," he said. "There are operators on final warnings for repayment while we have been trying to find solutions."

Now this month's eruption of armed conflict in the north is likely to make the already grim situation even worse. The fighting that has engulfed Tigray Regional State has made not only the region but neighbouring areas inaccessible as well. The Regional State is home to tourist attractions like Axum, with ruins dating as far back as the first century, and the rugged Gheralta Mountains, where many rock-hewn churches lie hidden.

Parts of the northern circuit of the country including the Simien Mountain range, the most elevated region in Ethiopia, and the Danakil Depression in Afar Regional State, one of the hottest places on earth, have also been closed off due to their proximity to the conflict.

Tour operators like Simien Tour & Travel, which began to see a trickle of reservations over the past couple of months, have had cancellations because of this.

"Most of our work was in the northern part of the country," said Alexander Kemal, owner of Simien Tour & Travel. "Since the conflict broke out, whatever new work we planned has been cancelled."

The months from November to February are high season for the country and the busiest time of the year for Simien. It was in preparation for this that the Ministry and Tourism Ethiopia had set a date for the reopening of the sector in the country. Alex and many others in the industry had been part of the reopening that took place across different destinations, including Lalibela and Bale National Park.

"It seemed promising since the pandemic had completely put us at a standstill," he said. "But now with the second wave happening across other countries as well, it's been back to zero."

Simien is one of the estimated 500-plus tour operators in the country. Other operators have shifted to different revenue streams.

Renting out the travel cars under the company is how Yama Ethiopia Tours is managing to stay afloat. In the past few years, the company was bringing in up to 800,000 dollars a year, according to the owner Tariku W. Aregay. Since March, however, that has no longer been the case. Tariku says that with the current outlook, the company is more focused on preparing for 2022.

"Perhaps with a vaccine available it will be more dependable," said Tariku. "The level of preparation here doesn't inspire a lot of confidence, and we don't want to expose remote communities to the virus by operating at this time."

Despite difficulties faced by the sector, the steps that were being taken were indeed starting to bear fruit. Local flights were also well on their way to matching the frequency of services provided before pre-pandemic times. Tourists had started arriving to various destinations, according to Sileshi Girma, CEO of Tourism Ethiopia.

"We have visitors at different destinations arriving in the country despite the quarantine requirements," he said. "The current situation will place another burden on the industry."

This might leave the country with a negative image that could be difficult to change.

"There is a possibility of reminding tourists that Ethiopia is a place with war or famine and reimagining is the necessary work that lies ahead for us," he said.

Tourism Ethiopia and the Ministry of Culture & Tourism are planning an aggressive promotion campaign once the nation regains peace, according to Sileshi.

"Part of the plan will include inviting international tour operators, so they know that safety won't be an issue," he said.

Though there may need to be work done to reinstate what has been physically damaged throughout this time, the main challenges lie in ascertaining a sense of safety, according to the CEO.

"We don't know yet if through the conflict any valuable sites have been harmed," he said. "But the need to work on the perception of the country is present. This will require a lot of public relations work."

The sector has benefitted immensely from better days and should work toward a change in operation in accordance with the current needs, according to experts in the hospitality sector like Yonas Moges. He believes that attracting customers at this time will require flexibility in operations and a willingness to operate at a minimal profit.

"It seems that the entire sector is awaiting a better day when it should be brainstorming solutions," he said. "Many have shut their doors while holding onto whatever resources they have. This could well be two years down the road, and restarting those businesses that far into the future will have cost implications that may be even harder to bear."

Taking the necessary precautions and getting creative to get people through the door with offers like reduced prices is the way to go, he advised.

Thousands across the tourism value chain from tour operators to tour guides like Tariku are left to ponder the future of their industry. Tariku is now working with local tourists on trips not too far out of the city. It may not be as profitable as earlier, but it is still a source of income in an otherwise impossible situation.

"We have a couple of groups online where we organise hiking trips," he said.

He also plans to start school once it reopens and begin learning Chinese -- adding one more language to his portfolio while he waits things out with the rest of the world.

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