Last updated: 11:27 PM ET, Tue December 22 2015

Tour Operators Opening Ethiopia, but with Difficulty

Tour Operator | David Cogswell | December 18, 2015

Tour Operators Opening Ethiopia, but with Difficulty

Photo courtesy of Scott Davis Images

Off the tourism map for decades, Ethiopia has become an accessible tourism destination in recent years. The government’s tourism promotion entity, the Ethiopian Tourism Organization, has mounted a campaign to publicize the country’s rich menu of historical, cultural and natural attractions. But the going has been tough.

Soon after the Ethiopian Tourism Organization got its campaign rolling, the Ebola crisis hit West Africa, and though the disease was always contained within a small area within West Africa, the panic generated by sensationalistic media coverage decimated the tourism industry across the continent of Africa.

In September 2014, the Ethiopian Tourism Organization joined forces with the National Tour Association (NTA) to sponsor a familiarization tour to show tour operators the reasons for visiting Ethiopia. The trip helped to generate some new tours to Ethiopia. But for tour operators trying to break into the market with a new-to-the-market African destination, it is hard to get attention.

Alexander + Roberts put its Ethiopia tour on sale last June, a small group trip that travels with six to 16 guests. The small group size allows the participants to travel without attracting attention under the guidance of a local guide, making it easier to penetrate and participate in the local culture.

But getting the message through all the media noise is a challenge.

“Given all the events in the world and the ongoing political season, it is not surprising that all this affects the marketing and sales of new destinations, which is essentially what Ethiopia is,” said Bob Drumm, president of Alexander + Roberts. “It’s new for Americans, not for Europeans. For the U.S. it’s still a new place and there is a lot of learning that has to be accomplished.”

Fear and confusion generated by too many international crises and a general lack of geographical sophistication about Africa are mudding the waters in the effort to market the destination.

“We did see some fallout after the November attack in Mali,” said Drumm, “and although Ethiopia is a Christian country, there is indication that current events are also generating a wait-and-see attitude amongst our clients and potential travelers for this destination.”

The current world political scene is especially tumultuous and is causing travelers to hold back. No one knows how long that will last.

“People just don’t feel at ease with new exotic destinations,” said Drumm. “We love presenting this because it’s so rich. It couldn’t be richer culture. It’s a marvelous place to visit, particularly now before it becomes mainstream. The pace of change is very fast there now. It’s like Cuba in that sense. There is reason to go now before it changes.”

What’s in Ethiopia?

As for reasons to visit Ethiopia, there are plenty. It is a unique country with a rich and varied history.

“With culture and tradition dating back over 3,000 years, Ethiopia is a land of religious faith, a glorious history, vibrant celebrations and endless festivals,” said Lee Wang, sales and marketing coordinator for SITA World Tours. “SITA has seen an increase in interest for tours to Ethiopia over the past several years. We also discovered customers’ interest in cultural festivals in Ethiopia and customized packages for religious events such as Timket. Ethiopia is a destination full of history which is a strong selling feature to this destination.”

The Ethiopians are proud of their claim of being is the only African country that was never colonized. Though it was occupied by Mussolini for short time in the run-up to World War II, and the Italian culture did leave its mark, Ethiopia was not a colony and the Italian occupation was short lived.

Ethiopia is where the oldest known human fossils were found. In terms of the evidence now accumulated, anthropologists deduce that Ethiopia is the place where human life originated.

Surprisingly certainly for many Americans, Ethiopia is also an important part of the early foundations of both Judaism and Christianity. Its history as one of the early centers of both religions has left many sites of historical and religious importance.

The so-called Rock-Hewn Churches at Lalibela are churches that were carved into rock, similarly to how Jordan’s Petra was built, not by building up but by carving out spaces and shapes in rock. They aren’t as monumental in scale as Petra, but they are comparable in their mystifying existence.

The living culture of Ethiopia today incorporates many religious practices and festivals that embody its rich Judeo-Christian heritage. During the time that North America was being colonized by Europeans, Ethiopia was already an empire. There are impressive remains of that imperial world that can still be seen today.

Gondar Castle, a royal estate with several castles, was built in 1636 by King Fasilides, around the time the Pilgrims were taking cooking lessons from Native Americans. The architectural style resembles European styles of the period, but actually is a reflection of styles from the Axumite Kingdom in Ethiopia, as well as Portuguese and Indian styles.   

Culturally Ethiopia is at a crossroads between Arab North Africa and Sub-Saharan Black Africa. The people, the culture, the cuisine and the music reflect a wide range of blends of these cultural elements with many other influences mixed in. The landscape is mostly fertile volcanic soil with rich vegetation.

The country also has landscapes and wilderness that have the same magnificence as much of the rest of Africa. The country is the source of the Blue Nile, which joins with the White Nile that originates in Uganda to form the Nile River of Egypt.

On the branch of that river that originates in Ethiopia there is a great waterfall called the Blue Nile Falls that is one of the great waterfalls of the world. In the dry season it slows and diminishes, but at its peak in the rainy season it’s a quarter of a mile wide and as high as 148 feet, comparable to Niagara at 167 feet.  

However, all of these attractions have not yet penetrated the mass culture of America. Americans in general have not yet caught the bug for traveling to Ethiopia.

Dave Herbert, owner of Great Safaris, said, “Ethiopia is not a destination we market, except for stopovers en route to other east and southern Africa regions aboard Ethiopian Airlines. In our experience there is little demand from American luxury travelers for Ethiopia.”

There are, however, some mainstream tour operators who have taken the ball of Ethiopia and run with it, including SITA World Tours and Alexander + Roberts. as well as Goway Travel, Kensington Tours, G Adventures, Intrepid Travel and Abercrombie & Kent.

Abercrombie & Kent made Ethiopia the first stop on its Africa by Private Jet tour and received such good feedback that the company is launching a privately guided trip dedicated entirely to Ethiopia trip in 2016.

The problem is just that of getting something new through the media noise.

“The point is it is a challenging time to get people to focus on emerging destinations not in our hemisphere,” said Drumm. “We’re grateful to have as many bookings as we do. Our customers are stalwart travelers. They understand the reality of what to expect when they get to a place. And they trust us to take care of them. Our groups are so small, from six to sixteen members, people know they get lots of attention. And we sort of fly under the radar. I’m sure it will pick up. We’ve gotten a very positive response.”  

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