Emerging sights, sounds of tourism in an age of pandemic
Globally, the outbreak of the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) brought about untold hardships and disrupted the world’s socio-economic landscape in ways that can only be imagined. With the travel and tourism sectors being some of the worst-hit, some destinations are repositioning for a quick comeback. Ethiopia is not only digging deep, it is also creatively harnessing most of its natural endowments to draw global tourists to new experiences. WOLE OYEBADE, who was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, recently, writes that the Ethiopian model is a good guide for Nigeria, especially in her struggle to retool aviation to drive local tourism.
LEADING tourism destinations globally have some things in common – a couple of sites to wow visitors, and a functional air transport system to take them there with ease.
Dubai City, for instance, has some of the best man-made sites that will leave tourists reeling for more in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But the cycle is incomplete without the Emirates Airline crisscrossing the globe.
“See Paris and die” is a tourism catch-phrase for the capital of France, Paris. Yet, that “city of light” would not have been attractive without the Air France-KLM partner airlines to ferry world tourists to its waiting splendour.
Destinations in Africa have a uniquely different proposition. On the continent are some amazing natural sites and pristine traditions, all fizzing in the newness that tourists want to experience.
Ethiopia has caught a tooth in that stead, and in addition to its thriving Ethiopian Airlines, the Addis Ababa capital has emerged as one of the world’s most preferred destinations for tourism. Notwithstanding its political and internal issues, the country’s resolve and strategic coordination in welcoming the world are paying off – and that is a lesson for beginners and those testing the water.
Specifically, Ethiopia has created eased access into the country with at least a flight in a major city nearby. The beauty of the new Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport readily compliments the warmth and safety of the fast-growing urban city in a way that qualifies both as a destination for visiting and transit travellers. And at the peak of the bunch are some 22 natural sites and intangible heritage, in their packaged forms, showcasing Ethiopia to the world. With touches of modern extravagance, the organic sites uniquely bring visitors closer to nature’s beauty and get you seven years ‘younger!
Welcome To The Land Of Origins
ETHIOPIA straddles between ancient past and modernity. Even in its slow urbanisation drive and new-found tourism promotion window opening to the world, the primacy of tradition and culture writ large.
Historically, the “Horn of Africa” was never conquered by colonialists. It is the oldest independent nation and the first sovereign African member of the League of Nations and the United Nations.
Though an ethnic and religiously diverse country with 117 million people – the second most populous in Africa after Nigeria – 80 per cent of its inhabitants are rural dwellers, who live in settlements reminiscent of ancient civilisation and unadulterated nature. And therein abounds its tourism potential.
The country is symbolic for many reasons. Ethiopia is adjudged the origin of mankind where the first set of homo sapiens presumably lived. Archaeologists’ findings supported that hypothesis, especially with the finding of fossils, including that of Lucy (the missing link between Apes and Man) in 1974. All the ethnographic, arts, paleoanthropology and prehistoric artefacts are well preserved in the National Museum, in Addis Ababa, and the first port of call for tourists in search of education.
Besides the diplomatic and sundry attractions that lace the streets of Addis Ababa, including the sprawling Headquarters of the African Union, United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the Ground Palace resident of the prime minister, among others, another iconic site is the Holy Trinity Cathedral of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church built around 1941.
The massive cathedral with its eerie ambience occupies the space between the living and the dead. While the living derives spirituality, the cathedral also tells the history of orthodox Christianity, the deep religiosity of the Ethiopians and the ancestral heroes of the people. From Emperor Haile Selassie, and his Empress, to the former prime minister, Meles Zenawi, and other prominent Ethiopians, all have their tombs at the cathedral.
Observant visitors would also find the Ethiopian calendar odd. By the local calendar, Ethiopia is currently in the Year 2014, seven years behind the Gregorian calendar. The year is divided into 13 months; 12 have 30 days and the last has just five days. The Ethiopian New Year day falls on September 12 of the Gregorian calendar.
“That is why Ethiopia is different,” my tour guide, Thomas Yashi, said with relish. “You can come to Ethiopia and get seven years younger than friends and family back home.”
Yashi, who noted that the sites had for so long been the exclusive preserve of local tourists added, that “now, we are opening them up to the world to come and see “the land of origin.” Yes, the COVID-19 was a major setback for the entire world, but we are opening new grounds and preparing for the huge advantage that will follow the adversity of the pandemic.”
Efficient Airline, Good Airport, Smart City
ONE of those new hurdles that pandemic has brought to travel and tourism is the public health priority and attendant safety consciousness. Following in lockstep is the discomfort of conducting multiple COVID-19 tests per trip, and at a heavy cost too.
A Nigerian traveller on a round-trip to neighbouring Ghana, for instance, will require four COVID-19 tests, each at the cost of N50, 000 ($100). The test costs N200, 000, while the flight ticket averages half the amount. On European trips, COVID-19 tests double the ticket fares thereby discouraging leisure travels.
Not unaware of those hurdles, the Ethiopian government has eased the burden of coming into the country by reducing COVID-19 tests to two – before boarding in and on the tourist’s way out of the country, which cost about $30 each. Similarly, the country has opened up the visa-on-arrival flank for travellers, at $50 a month, or $70 for a three-month stay.
It was, therefore, a little wonder to find nationalities of diverse countries arriving in groups with every Ethiopian Airlines flight that touched down at the expansive Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa.
The 2020 global downtime for aviation notwithstanding, the Ethiopian government made the most of the period to complete the international airport as the hub of African aviation.
A Nigerian traveller, Akeem Akinnifesi, said the Bole International Airport is exactly what an airport should look like in “a country that is serious enough.
“This is a massive airport that quadruples our Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos. I have been here for about five hours, but I have not seen a uniformed officer. Not one. There is no Aviation Security (AVSEC) officer begging for alms; telling you to ‘show some love,’ or ‘shake body small make I drink water.’ Their immigration officers treated travellers with little or no interface. There are no NDLEA officers harassing anyone. Not even touts coming to scavenge in the facility. This airport has just shown me that we are such a country of jokers and unserious people.
“So, life in a fellow African country can be this tolerable? I am on transit and do not have any business in the city. But I have been there and back, with utmost ease. Is that possible in Lagos, the commercial nerve centre?” Akinnifesi questioned rhetorically.
Both the airport and Ethiopian Airlines (ET), the largest carrier in Africa are 100 per cent owned by the Ethiopian government and are run by Ethiopians. From that hub, the airline daily serves a network average of 102 international destinations, 20 domestic, and 44 cargo destinations worldwide. It is also one of the fastest-growing carriers in the world.
So, the airport (in its grandeur state), the efficient national carrier, and the alluring Addis Ababa city are all tailor-made for Ethiopian travel and tourism.
The Head of ET Holidays, the tour operator wing of Ethiopian Airlines, Mahler Kebede, said that the main objective is to draw customers, either on a business trip or leisure travel, to visit Ethiopia.
“Stopover package has mostly transit passengers going through Addis Airport. So, the plan is to have these transit passengers come for a day, two, three, or up to seven days, and we have already made different packages/combinations, depending on the customer’s interest.
“We make it a pleasant one, without charging the passenger any additional fare to stop by Addis. We’ve created a situation where tourists get comfortable seeing Addis. Once this happens, the next time they will be full package passengers.”
Kebede added that the strategy has been working with appreciable growth in the demand and traffic of tourists coming into the country. He shared insights on what the future has in store.
“We have a target for this department. By 2035 we will be reaching 10 million inbound tourists. Already, different projects are ongoing because we also have different films that are being produced right now so that people get to know what’s in here because seeing is believing. We have one folder in the inflight for travellers on ET, showing what awaits them inside Ethiopia. These are new destinations because they were not known as tourists’ destinations before.”
‘State Of Nature’ And Attractions
ALREADY, there is plenty to savour in Ethiopian tourism sites. The Rift Valley, for instance, is a branch of the East African Rift that cuts through Ethiopia in a southwest direction from the Afar Triple Junction. It comprises hot springs, lakes and amazing wildlife.
The valley was created as a result of a rift in the earth’s crust. The Rift Valley has about seven lakes. Each lake has unique features, as well as endemic wildlife. The hot springs are rumoured to have chemical reactions that are soothing and therapeutic.
Tis Ishat is another name for the Blue Nile Falls. It is known as the smoking river because its streams of water move so fast, and water droplets bounce off the surface of the river creating the illusion of smoke.
It is located on the upper course of the River Nile, about 30 km downstream from the town of Bahir Dar and Lake Tana. At an impressive four hundred meters wide during peak rainy season in September, Blue Nile Falls is a show-stopping display of one of nature’s most powerful forces, water.
Kuriftu Resort, Bishoftu, takes guests back to the Stone Age with luxury rock-hewn apartments all in a serene natural environment.
Kuriftu Resort Entoto is the latest and brand new park that was developed in a record time of nine months. Just imagine some tented suites with ultramodern facilities on the mountain top! Its Adventure Park is the first of its kind in Ethiopia and has even been selected as one of the top destinations in the world. Accommodations include glamping for summer camps, educational programmes, and corporate retreats. Forest Apa has a sauna/steam, jacuzzi, massage with a view of the forest. It is, indeed, a place for the adventurous, with activities like the zipline, rope course, paintball, archery, pedal kart, go-kart, horse riding, yoga, trampoline, playground, and hammock village.
Operations Director of the resorts, Yonaiel Belete, told The Guardian that the country was at a crossroad at the beginning of the pandemic, hence the authorities’ decision to courageously shift attention to international tourism, rallying the entire private sector behind it.
“The government sold tourism opportunities to the private sector, allotted hubs, provided the infrastructure and gave a six-month deadline for each investor to build its portion. The government emphasised infrastructural development. In Addis Ababa, before now, there was no green space for people to walk around them. That has changed. Private investors that were willing to improve tourism were allocated more space and tax holidays. Right now, there are 10 locations with tax incentives. With that, you don’t have to pay profit tax so that you can build your resorts.
“Ours (Kuriftu Resort Entoto) is one of them. In about nine months, we built it. I say that the government is pushing for tourism growth and has invested in three locations in the country. They are building more roads to get people there and also moving people to invest in lots of tourism activities.”
Similarly, Gondar, often described as the Camelot of Africa, was once the capital of Ethiopia from 1626 until the mid 19th Century. The main architectural centrepiece is the Royal Enclosure known as Fasil Ghebbi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, containing six fortified stone castles, including the three-story original Fasiledes Castle, plus chancery built by Emperor Fasil in the 1630s.
Indeed, Ethiopia is a place to be in September, Ethiopian New Year, to see the Meskel annual festival of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Millions of Ethiopians, at home and abroad gather at the Mesqel Square, Addis Ababa, or form communities to celebrate the grand religious festival of flowers and bonfire. The symbolism is not lost on the sense of nationhood and the unity of purpose.
Swimming Against The Current
AFRICAN travel expert, Ikechi Uko, acknowledged the depth of tourism development and “consistent” transformation ongoing in Addis Ababa especially, describing the process as the sustainable way to grow tourism.
Uko said even though Ethiopia has neither oil nor petrodollars for prodigal investments, “its steady tourism development has made the country a destination to reckon with.”
“Kuriftu Resort is a private facility, not government-owned. Nigeria has more lakes, running into hundreds. And the country (Nigeria) is far richer. The Ethiopian government is not doing everything, but it has adopted the Dubai model. If you are capable as an individual, they would allow you to invest. That is how to grow slowly but steadily.”
The founder of Brisk Marketing and Travels Limited, Uhunamure Erhahon, is most worried about the institutional indifference of the Nigerian government that stalled tourism growth.
Erhahon said that Ethiopian tourism has not done anything that is beyond Nigeria. “But look at the visa part; see how seamless it was on arrival in Ethiopia. Even when they used to have e-visa, it was very easy. You just do it online and don’t need to call anybody. That is the first thing to look into if we must build Nigerian tourism.
“E-visa is the in-thing for tourism. But I know how expensive it is to do it in Nigeria, coupled with the fact that you need an immigration officer to do the processing. We paid $50 for a visa here. In Nigeria, it ranges from N80, 000 ($150) to N150, 000 ($300), depending on the nationality. That is not encouraging, especially when you are trying to attract other Africans and foreigners. Tourists find it expensive and won’t buy it.
“Again, we saw religious tourism here (Meskel festival) and you could see the oneness, belief, commitment and excitement among the people. Those that could not come to the square observed the rites in their homes, with flowers on the ground and the bonfire too. But we have a lot more religious and cultural history in Nigeria, can we all agree on them and push them out for the world to come and see? That is how to do tourism.”
She added that the government needs to create an enabling environment for the private sector to drive tourism. “I cannot push a hiking tour to a place where tourists will be scared and their lives will be at risk. It doesn’t speak well. Also, access roads to these destinations are not good enough. With insecurity, bad roads and even multiple taxes that are levied, we cannot grow or sell tourism,” Erhahon said.
Travel consultant, Shalom Asuquo-Ankoh, said that all levels of governments across the board have always been swimming against the current and mouthing tourism development by engaging non-professionals in the driver’s seat.
“Ministers and commissioners in this industry are not practitioners, nor professionals. They don’t even have a clue. They don’t see the business of tourism beyond going to visit this and that. Ethiopia was practically picking passengers for Dubai. But it dawned on them that they need to do things differently, given the ban on Emirates in Nigeria and the pandemic generally. If by tomorrow, Dubai says ‘Ethiopian, don’t come here, they have to survive.”
Asuquo-Ankoh, who is also the coordinator of the Federation of Tourism Associations of Nigeria (FTAN) in Akwa Ibom State, observed that Ethiopia is not resting on its oars, but still looking for things to do differently to attract international tourists.
“They have just set up a large hospital for medical tourism. I was wowed to see that. They are even looking at tribes that are fast going into extinction, like Wakanda, to sell as a destination. Now, it is part of the Ethiopian Holiday package.
“So, what are we doing with our culture, religions, and all the festivals, to give them viability? Unfortunately, tourism in Nigeria is built around events. Once the event is over, everybody disperses. But we can do better like we are going with the Calabar festival.
“Let the government assemble the right people that will sit down, dialogue with professionals that have passion and chart a path to real development. Tourism has a large value chain and is bigger than oil and gas. This is a global industry that is worth more than $9 trillion a year. We have everything in Nigeria, but we have to start doing things differently to get the desired results,” Asuquo-Ankoh said.