Ethiopia looks to Kenya for tourism ideas

Ethiopia tourism

An ancient gate in Harar, a historic city, some 500km east of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. It is among the sites the country is marketing as alternatives to troubled Tigray.

Photo credit: Aggrey Mutambo | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • To Ethiopia, the programme is to market alternative sites in the country, away from Tigray region which hosts some of the oldest heritage sites listed by Unesco.

Ethiopian authorities are looking to neighbour Kenya to boost tourism earnings from alternative sites, nearly a year after the country’s north was plunged into a conflict that hurt the hospitality industry.

The programme, officials say, involves negotiating a common tourism visa arrangement with Kenya to mimic what already exists between Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.

The three countries negotiated the common tourism visa as members of the East African Community (EAC), although Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan have yet to join.

Ethiopia is not a member of the EAC but shares a border with Kenya.

Nationals of the two countries can travel only using valid passports while tourists from other countries must obtain separate visas to be able to visit.

Harar traditional dancers

Harar traditional dancers prepare to entertain guests outside an ancient mosque in Harar, 500km east of Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. 

Photo credit: Aggrey Mutambo | Nation Media Group

According to the plan, Addis Ababa will place Ethiopian Airlines and Tourism Ethiopia, as well as the immigration department, at the centre of a programme to open up tourism sites and link operators with neighbouring countries such as Kenya.

“We have interesting sites to visit and are hoping that cooperation with Kenya could help us address some of the gaps in our capacity,” Seleshi Girma, the chief executive of Tourism Ethiopia,  the agency that markets the country’s sites, said last week in Addis Ababa, after a meeting with tour operators from Kenya and Ethiopia.

“In Kenya you have beautiful beaches and the Big Five. Here we have historical sites and other animals. There is great potential for our tourism in both countries.”

His agency together with Ethiopian Airlines organised a meeting between Kenyan tours and travel operators under the their organisation, the Tour Operators Society of Kenya (TOSK) and Ethiopian counterparts.

The idea was to encourage contact-sharing as Addis Ababa looks to benefiting from arriving tourists.

Tourism Ethiopia CEO Seleshi Girma

Tourism Ethiopia CEO Seleshi Girma speaks to a group of tours and travel agents from Kenya and Ethiopia during a meeting at Hadero Coffee Company's premises in Addis Ababa on August 30. 

Photo credit: Aggrey Mutambo | Nation Media Group

Tigray’s big problem

To Ethiopia, the programme is to market alternative sites in the country, away from Tigray region which hosts some of the oldest heritage sites listed by Unesco.

An ongoing conflict pitting government forces and allied militia against the proscribed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has rendered the sites inaccessible, besides causing destruction and displacement.

Mr Seleshi argues a combination of improving infrastructure and connections between tourism players in the region could help his country deal with tourism losses in Tigray.

“There are reports all over about Ethiopia being unsafe but people who come here can make their own choices because this is a big country,” he told the group of Kenya and Ethiopian tour operators.

“We want to build relations especially between tour operators because we see this as a bridge to opening our markets.”

Ancient wall Harar Ethiopia

An ancient wall, now renovated, in Harar, Ethiopia. Legend has it that the wall offered protection to a trade emir who settled in the country four centuries ago. It has a perimeter of 3km, was erected five metres high and built with volcanic stone.

Photo credit: Aggrey Mutambo| Nation Media Group

Ethiopia boasts more than 3000 historical sites, some of which are estimated to be as old as 3,000 years.

It sees its flourishing national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, as a key pillar in marketing tourism.

The airline flies to all capitals in the region and enjoys a near national monopoly to major airports in Ethiopia, where it flies to some routes as many as three times a day.

With an expanded terminal at the Bole International Airport, Ethiopian sees itself as a regional hub in the coming years.

In the meantime, dangling easier-to-apply online visas and think they can soon reach agreements on common visas with neighbours.

Ethiopia tourism meeting

A man fixes a banner ahead of a meeting of tours and travel agents from Kenya and Ethiopia at Hadero Coffee Company's premises in Addis Ababa on August 30.

Photo credit: Aggrey Mutambo | Nation Media Group

Unique products

For tour operators, an Ethiopian market can be lucrative, given the historical sites.

Mr Vincent Gichamba, the team leader at Lit Adventures, a tours and travel firm in Nairobi, says Kenyan operators can rely on Ethiopia’s connectivity to pitch a wider market to tourists.

“Having connectivity with convenient daily flights is a plus. They also have unique ancient products which really complement their great hospitality,” Mr Gichamba, also the spokesman for the tour operators, told the Nation.

“I would highly encourage a mutual and sustainable win – win business relationships that would benefit all parties thus maximise on the synergy of the two countries.”

Harar traditional dancers entertain guests outside an ancient mosque in Harar, 500km east of Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. 

Photo credit: Aggrey Mutambo | Nation Media Group

The market may be there but even the tour operators say certain challenges must be improved.

One is the stability of the communication network. Running on only one service provider, Ethio Telecom, some parts of Ethiopia have low or non-existent internet.

Most Ethiopians still struggle to speak foreign languages which could cause a communication barrier and there are still problems converting local currency to forex or vice versa.

“The political instability in Ethiopia is a big threat since it will hinder any efforts that towards marketing and publicising Ethiopia,” Mr Gichamba added.

A 'hyena man' feeds hyenas in the dark in Harar. The ancient practice of feeding hyenas to keep them off domestic livestock has turned into a tourism venture for locals in Ethiopia. Visitors can watch or take part in the feeding under the careful watch of 'hyena men'.

Photo credit: Aggrey Mutambo | Nation Media Group

Hope for the future

Tourism in Ethiopia, as opposed to Kenya, has always played catch-up to other sectors such as agriculture, mining, and other services.

Ethiopia, still, was able to get 812,000 tourists in 2019, most of them from Europe.

Harar traditional dancers entertain guests outside an ancient mosque in Harar, 500km east of Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. 

Photo credit: Aggrey Mutambo | Nation Media Group

But after the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on global travel, conflict prevented tourists from travelling to Tigray, and with agriculture still reliant on erratic weather, Ethiopia sees opening itself up for other tour sites as one way out of the low earnings.

“We expect things to look up, and better, once the infrastructure projects between the two countries are complete,” said Joe Aketch, a former Mayor of Nairobi, now the Chairman of Kenya-Ethiopia Friends Association.

He was referring to a main highway from Nairobi to Addis Ababa via Moyale, which forms part of the larger Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (Lapsett) corridor.

“The biggest advantage for the two countries is that their leaders have committed to completing these projects.”

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