THE TOURISM INDUSTRY: Trends and Strategic Issues


Given current political environment, tourism and tourist destinations may not be in the minds of many Ethiopians and tourists who wish and plan to visit Ethiopia. Tourism’s contribution in the national economy may be decimal, but it plays a critical role in the meager forging currency exchange Ethiopia earns annually. And its growing potential for the national economy and particularly for states like Tigrai, rich with historical and cultural heritage, can’t be underestimated.  Tourism, like sport and music, is an ambassador for peace and harmony, badly  needed in current day Ethiopia. After all the rabblerousing, we are hopeful the dust will settle down and tourist business will come back to reward both tourists and hosts.  That is why we decided to have the first maiden article on finace and economy begin on a hopeful note.

Ethiopia has diverse tourism resources that could appeal to a wide mix of tourists; nature and history-loving, culture enthusiasts, and conference-goers. Despite this, the country has not been able to promote and provide enough destinations apart from principally the historical circuit of Northern Ethiopia and Addis Ababa.[1] Many in the west consider Ethiopia as only a historical and cultural destination; unaware of its potential importance as a destination for nature and adventure tourism.

At the heart of strategic formulation for tourism lies the distinction between tourist arrivals and tourist nights. For tourism income to augment substantially, tourist nights are arguably more important than tourist arrivals. For tourist nights to grow in turn, it helps to have extensive attractions and destinations. As stated above, Ethiopia is heavily dependent on historical and cultural heritage. So far, it has not exploited the complementarities to be had between cultural/historical and natural attractions. As a result, the number of tourist nights in Ethiopia is short (estimated to be 5 – 7 nights) despite the diversity of its potential resources. The import of this is that non-traditional destinations must be cultivated while already well-developed destinations have to be enhanced in quality. For instance, a tourist who visits Axum should be persuaded to go to Gheralta for mountain trekking, reassured to stay over in Adigrat for Meskel celebration, and driven to the great depression in Afar for the sight of an active volcano. In a bid to extend tourist nights, the Kenyan tourist development corporation has identified more attractions and products for potential development. These are sports tourism, film production, conference tourism, cruise-ship tourism, golf tourism, and eco-tourism.[2]

We reckon that the single most important strategic issue is whether to diversify or to deepen existing tourism attractions, or both. Diversification looks to be the better option for  Ethiopia, given that it is endowed with a dazzling number of tourism resources.  In addition to about a dozen UNESCO registered heritage sites and events, many additional destinations can be developed.  Already, there is a newfound appreciation for nature reserves and wildlife, and archeological treasures of Ethiopia as tourism attractions. Paleontology and archeology are attracting the attention of tourists. Being home for some of the famous and iconic hominid fossils and tools, Ethiopia is deservedly referred to as the ‘Cradle of Man Kind’.  Lucy, a hominid skeleton dating to 3.2 million years ago, is the most famous hominid fossil ever found in the world. The country is also home for the oldest stone tools, aged 2.6 million years.

For lovers of adventure, the Arteale in the Dankil,which is a rare tectonically active spot on the planet, could further be enhanced as a favorite destination. In this area, the Afari people, still practicing their age-old ways of life and customs, are great people to visit. In the environs of Addis Ababa,[3] there are ample sites of touristic interest that need to be promoted and be included in tour itineraries. One such site is Mount Zikwala which is a sanctuary of endemic bird species and a towering mountain dominating the skyline for miles around. Ambo town and the surrounding countryside, which is about 125 km from Addis Ababa, has important attractions; the Guder Falls on the road to Nekemte, Mount Wenchi consisting of a picturesque crater lake and a wide plateau in Afro-alpine patches of forest and an ancient monastery. One of the largest remaining tracts of indigenous forests to be found in Ethiopia is some 20 km away from Addis Ababa. the Menagesha National Forest has a 2500 ha of a closed canopy of juniper and Podocarpus trees with a searing view of the surrounding from the summit. Arba Minch town,  the Nechisar National Park, Lake Abaya and Lake Chamo town in the South could also be distinct attractions. The Crocodile Farm, where about 8000 Crocodiles congregate, and the Dorze people, renowned for cotton weaving, add to the plethora of attractions around Arba Minch.

The big religious and cultural festivities of the different ethnic and religious groups such as the Meskel Bonfire, the Erecha event of the Oromo, the Chembelala of the Sidama and the Ashenda of the Tigrian girls[4] and many others in themselves, if consciously tied into the timing of the flow of tourists, could add substantial experience to the tourists. Adwa, an old town in Tigrai, Northern Ethiopia, which is surrounded by scenic standalone mountains, where Ethiopians spectacularly defeated an invading Italian army in 1896, could be another great destination.

In terms of intangible attractions, the list is as long. The Ethiopian highlands are ideal retreats from the harsh climate of the northern hemisphere during the winter season. Coffee Arabica and the Ethiopian coffee ceremony are notable for their uniqueness. After all, Ethiopia is the origin of the coffee plant. In fact, the province of ‘Kaffa’ is believed to be the origin of the word ‘coffee’. Ethiopian culinary is also something to go for. The tight pentatonic melody aside, a diverse blend of traditional and contemporary music with indigenous dancing style is a great legacy to be discovered by tourists.

Ethiopia, the home of many renowned Athletes, has won the imagination of the world since Abebe Bikila run barefooted at the Olympic marathon race in Rome in 1960. In this connection, the birthplaces of many athletes, Bekoji area, in Central Ethiopia, can be an attraction for sports lovers, not to speak of the number of running events that can be creatively organized in this place.

In particular, intangible tourist attractions such as ideal climate, unique music, rich culinary offering, coffee ceremony, etc should be made to tie in well with tangible tourism destinations for tourism developments in the country.

There is another clear-cut trendsetting at the global level. “Cultural tourism”, focusing on greater knowledge, self-development, and experience of other cultures, is evolving as a concept. Over the years, it has grown from a niche travel market into almost a compulsory component of a traveler’s itinerary. It is also important for prolonging tourists’ duration of stay. It is noted that 40% of all international leisure tourism has a cultural component.[5] With the likes of Ashenda of Tigrai there is a big scope to exploit in this respect.

The other crucial strategic issue is the choice of source markets for tourism. The emergence of new countries as important source markets and the changing ranking in expenditure on tourism is a significant trend with huge implications for tourism planning.  The market share of emerging economies as sources of tourists has gained substantial points over that of the developed countries. The share of these economies, according to the UNWTO, is expected to reach 57% by 2030[6]. This has far-reaching implications for aspiring tourist destination countries like Ethiopia.

The most palpable and far-reaching change in pattern that has caught up recently is that leisure tourism is no more the exclusive domain of the aged and the retired. With growing saving capacity and awareness, the young are entering the international leisure market as heavy consumers.

Another development that Ethiopia has to be keenly aware of is the pervasiveness of social media as an authentic means of promotion and dissemination of information. Social media has become an indispensable tool to communicate about attractions, tourism services, and the best itinerary.

Lately, more and more tourism packages are being sold for a group of countries as opposed to one country alone. This is in response to the fact that tourists like to visit as many countries as they could, budget allowing, within a certain regional space. Once tourists leave their home country, they would love to cross borders and have an extended time of joy and adventure, savoring the different offerings of neighboring countries. The implication for Ethiopia is the development of a combined tourist map and promotion with neighboring countries of Kenya and Eritrea. Kenya offers a great attraction in wildlife while Eritrea could avail the opportunity for sunbathing in its coastline by developing authentic beaches. Ethiopia ultimately does not stand to benefit from positioning itself as a ‘single tourism destination’ as opposed to a ‘tourism destination integrated regionally’. This goes in parallel with its effort to develop its destinations and attractions to accommodate the wide-ranging interest of tourists. In particular, policymakers should take cognizance of the fact that tourists traveling as a family need diverse experiences corresponding to the age composition and professional background of family members.

As stated above, Ethiopia has several attractions that are unique and experiential. Policymakers in Ethiopia should, therefore, carefully consider implementing a strategy of high yield (premium) tourism given the varied and experiential attractions of the country.

[1] Nowadays, there is a visible trend towards diversification as the Danakil Region of the Afar, the Bishoftu resort areas and Arba Minch are attracting more tourists.

[3] These sites could complement Addis Ababa by availing enough for a couple of days retreat to business and conference travellers to Addis Ababa.

[4] There are also variants of the same celebration in Sekota and Lasta in the Semien Wollo Zone of the Amhara Region. They are known as Ashendiye and Shida respectively.

[5] World Bank, Lain Christie, Eneida Fernandes, Hannah Messerli, Louse Twining-Ward, World Bank, ‘TOURISM IN AFRICA, Harnessing Tourism For Growth and Improved Livelihood’, 2013, page 58

[6] UNWTO, Annual Report, 2013

Teshome Beyene
Teshome Beyne's column comments on Finance and Economy. A prolific writer, he is an economist by training and cut his teeth in both trade policy and practice including the financial sectors of banking and insurance. He has extensive work experience in senior and executive positions with Tigrai Bureau of Trade, Nyala Insurance, Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce to mention a few.


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