ADDIS ABABA – The Ethiopian tourism sector hopes to weather the global recession by developing its unique attractions, boosting private sector involvement and tapping new markets like China, India and Russia.
Just under 400,000 holidaymakers visited the huge Horn of Africa nation in 2008, and the authorities say they expect that to increase to half a million this year. Their target is one million within five years.
“In spite of the crisis, there are people coming … there are frequent visitors. There are niche tourists who want to discover Ethiopia and that is good omen,” tourism minister Mohamoud Dirir told Reuters in an interview.
Ethiopia’s tourist attractions range from the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela to the giant Axum obelisk and desert sites where scientists unearthed evidence of the birth of humanity.
But the sector was neglected during the Marxist rule of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mohamoud said – just at a time when continental tourism leaders like Egypt and Kenya were fast developing their facilities and infrastructure.
“We missed a very important trend in terms of major investments … Now we want to enhance public-private partnerships and focus on our comparative advantages,” he said.
“The economic slowdown in the West is very unfortunate, but we can convince some investors to invest in Ethiopia, where the benefits and the turnout is certain.”
Mohamoud said the government was seeking investment in tourism from the local private sector, wealthy Ethiopians in the diaspora, and the Gulf states.
Last July, Dubai World – part of Dubai Holding owned by the Emirates ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum – said it would invest about $100m in several Ethiopian economic sectors, including hotels and tourism.
Ethiopia earned about $136m from tourism in 2007, and some $88m in the first seven months of last year – the latest period for which figures were available.
Tourism accounts for a mere 2.5% of gross national product, something the government is keen to change. The country of about 80 million people is one of the world’s poorest, ranked 170 out of 177 on the U.N. Human Development Index.
The Obama factor
Mohamoud’s forecast looked optimistic, given that the World Travel and Tourism Council predicts global tourism to grow at just 4% a year for the next decade.
“There will be some miraculous leaps as we enhance infrastructure, the service sector and the involvement of the private sector,” he said.
Mohamoud said President Barack Obama’s election would help draw more US visitors, particularly the many African-Americans who associated Ethiopia with a search for their roots.
“We are also focusing on emerging markets like China, India, Turkey, Russia,” he said.
Many Ethiopians had been educated in the former Soviet Union, he added, so the government was increasingly involving them in trying to break into the Russian market.
His ministry was forging stronger links with countries in the region, he said, both to create cross-border package tours and to learn from their experiences.
Neighbouring Djibouti offered beaches and world-class scuba diving, he said, while Yemen shares cultural links tied to the legend of the Biblical Queen of Sheba.
Sudan had a growing middle-class that Ethiopia also wanted to attract, partly with its more temperate climate. From Kenya, he said, they were getting expertise on wildlife management.
The World Bank is helping with projects including technical support for the conservation of Ethiopia’s many historic monuments.
The government also wants more Ethiopians to take holidays at home – inspired by the success of the domestic markets in India and China – and it is developing “community tourism,” where local villagers host foreign visitors.
“It is a unique experience and helps bring income to marginalised communities,” Mohamoud said. “We want to involve more and more communities … It is an open-ended opportunity.”