LALIBELA, Ethiopia – Guide Getachew Tekeba used to bring tourists to his favorite mountainside spot just minutes from his house in Lalibela to watch the sunset and talk of his fantasy to build a hotel with the best view in Ethiopia.
One evening three years ago, a couple from the United States — who Getachew did not realize had arrived by private jet — paid closer attention than most. They asked detailed questions on business plans and quizzed him on possible designs.
Top guides in the northern town of Lalibela earn about $200 a month but a few months later the 29-year-old checked his bank account and found a deposit for $800,000.
“I was really shocked,” Getachew told Reuters in the lobby of his million-dollar Mountain View Hotel that opened its doors to tourists earlier this year. “You can’t believe that things like this really happen.”
The remaining $200,000 he needed was gathered from a large group of local investors.
Getachew and his partner Mati Assefa — also a 29-year-old tour guide — were given the money as an interest-free loan to pay back seven years after opening. The father of one says he is confident he will pay it back and even expand the business.
“We will honor the agreement,” Getachew said, as former tour guide colleagues milled in and out looking for tourists to show around the town’s fabled red rock-hewn churches. “But we need more tourists to come. We should promote tourism in our country.”
Legend has it that the churches were carved below ground at the end of 11th century and beginning of the 12th after God ordered King Lalibela to build churches better than any in the world and dispatched angels to help him.
Ethiopia is trying to market these ancient religious sites and remote areas inhabited by nomadic tribes to foreign visitors.
But the country — most often internationally associated with famine and poverty — remains off the tourist radar for even the most adventurous of visitors to Africa.
Just under 400,000 holidaymakers visited the Horn of Africa nation in 2008, and the tourism ministry expects that to increase to half a million this year. The government target is to attract one million foreign visitors within five years.
“It’s a bit of an adventure coming here,” British tourist Paul Collins said over a cup of coffee. “But definitely worth it and you just hope the money you spend goes to the people who need it. The poverty you see is pretty disturbing.”
Tourism accounts for a mere 2.5 percent of gross domestic product in a county almost wholly reliant on farm exports.
The American couple — who come from oil-rich Galveston, Texas — loaned the money on condition of anonymity. The husband has since died and Getachew says the wife plans to visit the hotel for the first time next year.
“That will be a special day for us,” said Getachew. “If they hadn’t come along I would still be working as a guide or I could be sitting at home doing nothing.”
He waves out of the floor-to-ceiling viewing windows at three tour guides leading a busload of Ethiopian-Americans on a visit to the churches.
“There is no jealousy at all from the other guides,” he said. “They came to our inauguration and had only good wishes.”
Wary of alienating locals, the newly rich duo have installed water pumps for some Lalibela farmers who they hope will eventually become the main suppliers of produce to the hotel.
“There is poverty around here and some people don’t have any money,” Getachew said, gesturing toward the small shacks close to the hotel. “It would not be fair if only I profited.”
The receptionist and a waitress approach to ask the former tour guide a question and he answers quickly, looking every inch the boss.
“It wasn’t until the minister of tourism came to our opening that I finally realized I was a hotel owner,” said the smiling businessman. “It was a great moment.”