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PHOTO: Paradise Lodge overlooks Lake Abaya and a mountain called Jesus' Bridge. (Photo by David Cogswell)
Ignorance is not often considered an asset, but on this trip to Ethiopia I have the advantage of being able to report my impressions as a first-time visitor who knew very little about the country before I got on this NTA Product Development Trip this week.
The schedule is full, leaving little time to file reports, and there are many things to report. The Ethiopian Tourism Organization was tasked with trying to give as comprehensive a picture of Ethiopia's tourism possibilities as possible to a small group of tour operators in a 10-day period, including trans-Atlantic transportation. In four full days of touring they have done a great job of dazzling us with the range of possibilities in the country, and we're only about halfway finished with the trip.
In four days plus an arrival day, they have presented a broad range of experiences that are possible in Ethiopia. They have already made their point that Ethiopia is far different from anywhere else in the world, and those differences make it a highly desirable place to visit.
We've gotten a taste of over-the-top natural wonders, such as the Blue Nile Falls. I think the falls are comparable to Victoria or Iguazu and worth experiencing in all its power and beauty regardless of any comparisons of measurement with other places.
The rock-hewn churches in Lalibela are actual churches that were not built out of stones stacked on each other, but are carved into rock, similar to Jordan's Petra, and quite comparable to Petra in terms of the impact of seeing them. Some say the rock-hewn churches even exceed Petra in the magnitude of the wonder of their creation, their very existence. But again, comparisons are odious when viewed in a competitive way. But the similarity is useful for descriptive purposes. The rock-hewn churches are not nearly as well known as Petra, but they are worth seeing for many of the same reasons.
The exterior of these structures, 11 in all, is amazing enough. As monumental sculpture they are bewilderingly massive, elegantly designed and detailed. But the interiors are also carved out, creating rooms within the rock. And the rooms have within them ornate architecture, such as arches in the ceilings.
The arches of the rock-hewn churches emulate the arches of classical architecture, but historically arches were built by piling up stones from the ground. They were a device of architecture for creating strong bridging structures. In a carved-out space in a mountain they have no function but aesthetics. They are not required to hold up the roof as they are in their normal use. And yet they are there. They were chiseled out with a level of craftsmanship that is mind-boggling.
There is a fascinating history surrounding the events that brought about these structures and you can dig into that at any depth you want to. But their very existence, just seeing them in their massive reality is enough to overwhelm the imagination.
So Ethiopia has its version of Petra and its version of Victoria Falls, but these are just highlights that can be used to brand the country and draw people, who can then appreciate all there is about the country.
Jordan has much more than Petra. Petra is only one part of what it has, but it serves as a brand name attraction that will bring people to the country so people can use it as a jump-off point to appreciate all that lies between the brand-name attractions. And it's the same with Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is not just about these highlights, but they are great assets that the country can use in its quest to build its tourism industry. It has many assets in that regard, so many and so much that it's amazing the country has stayed off center stage of the tourism industry for so long.
When it comes to tourism attractions, Ethiopia has them in spades. For religious travelers, it has many sites of significance to Christianity, but also to Judaism and Islam. A large part of the fascination of Ethiopia is the way its culture encompasses such diversity of religion and culture. And they all blend in Ethiopia's own unique way.
Ethiopia seems to merge Northern Africa and Southern Africa in the same country. Its land is fertile and green, with the vigorousness of nature associated with sub-Saharan Africa. But it has much of the richness of culture with its Arabic and European influences of Northern Africa.
Today, on Tuesday, the fifth full day of touring, the tourism board has brought us to Arba Minch to show us the resort side of Ethiopia. Paradise Lodge, where we are housed for two nights, has a balcony restaurant that looks out over a vast green landscape that includes a beautifully symmetrical peak called Jesus' Bridge and Lake Abaya and a beautiful green plain.
The culture here has shifted noticeably from the Northern African culture to the Sub-Saharan African culture. Already in four days of touring, the Ethiopian Tourism Organization has succeeded in impressing on us a vast range of possibilities in Ethiopia. And it's obvious we have just scratched the surface.
Please stay tuned.
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours and packages, Africa and the Middle East.
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