The man known as the father of Ethiopia’s tourism, Habteselassie Tafesse, died on Wednesday, August 9th. Known to have coined the phrase “13 months of Sunshine”, he was instrumental in helping make Ethiopia a tourist destination, rather than the face of poverty to the world.
A gifted communicator, an orator, he was an advocate for the transformation of the country as a unique nation, one that can market its culture and bring resources to its coffers. The 90-year-old was born in 1927 in Addis Ababa to a career diplomat – Tafesse.
He lived his formative years abroad in major international cities, giving him world exposure in earnest and the ability to speak eight languages eloquently. However, mastering the Amharic language became a lifelong struggle for him. He graduated from Teferi Mekonnen and went on and eventually graduated from Ohio’s Oberlin College Government and Public Relations.
His first voyage to public service was as the head of press affairs with Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry. He became a natural fit becoming the hub for international journalists and foreigners with the Ethiopian government.
In the 1960’s, he accompanied Ras Seyoum Mengesha, the information Minister to Germany for a trade expo. The minister was said to be taken aback with how Germany was benefiting from tourism and upon their return, Ras Seyoum approached the emperor for Ethiopia to emulate the success of the European nation to attract tourism and earn dividends.
Upon the recommendation of the minister, the Emperor appointed Habteselassie to lead a new Ethiopian Tourism Organization. He was said to resist the appointment but took the challenge reluctantly.
Within the ETO, he engineered the Historic Route–an important segment of the strategy to promote tourism to the country–the routes being the Blue Nile Falls, Lake Tana, Gonder, Lalibela and the ancient historical biographies of the nation.
He created Nile advertising to help market the nation to the outside world.
His opened a duty free shop–a new concept to the country. To fund what was then a new idea, he recruited personal contacts to help import products to sell. He imported Johnny Walker whiskeys on borrowed will and resources. While the government hesitated, they were said to be impressed with his personal drive and determination.
During the beginning of the era of Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam, he was imprisoned for eight years until he was freed to help the government engineer its tourism sector once again. The Minister charged with the revival of the tourism sector, Fisseha Geda wanted him to help him engineer his effort.
Not only did the government release him from prison, but Colonel Mengistu apologized to him, noting his imprisonment was a mistake from the outset.
The highlight of his encore performance with Ethiopian tourism became controversial as he was accused of benefiting from duty free privileges intended to help host a successful gathering of the 1986 Gold Mercury Communist party at the then newly built Exhibition Place. He was retired while his boss, Fisseha was made ambassador to North Korea.
From the sidelines, he continued to champion a slew of issues, including Ethiopian art and his greatest passion, tourism. “If we make use of our resources positioned in every part of the country as it should be, we can augment the number of tourists come to Ethiopia without a doubt”, he told Ethiopian Herald last year.
He is survived by his ex-wife, Mulu Mesfin (the daughter of Ras Mesfin), who currently has Alzheimer and three children-Solomon, Michael, Saba and four grand-children.