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End of the peak season that never was

End of the peak season that never was

Even before it made it to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity, Timket (Ethiopian Epiphany) had always been popular among international tourists. That history, however, seems to have taken a serious blow this time around.

The foreigner head counts at Janmeda this week are a testament to that reality. A place that used to be attended by over a hundred international tourists thanks to its popularity as a centre of Ethiopian epiphany, Janmeda barely saw any foreign visitors this week.

“Last year, counting the number of foreign visitors at Janmeda was difficult as there were a lot of them - probably over a hundred. Earlier this week, I was at Janmeda; disappointingly, I did not even see 10 tourists,” said Teshome Ayele, a well-known tour operator and owner of Balageru Tours.

“January - a time when our earnings reach climax due to a surge in the number of tourists - has almost concluded but we registered zero earnings from international tourists. This marks the end of the peak season before it began,” he added.  

Ethiopia’s peak tourist season is from September to January and particularly, festivals like Meskel and Timket are very popular among foreign visitors and global tour agencies. In particular, international agencies consider January the most vibrant and busy time to visit Ethiopia due to its colorful festivals and the cool and dry weather during this month.

Of around three billion dollars annual tourism receipts of the country before coronavirus came to the picture, the peak season used to account for almost half of the total tourism earnings, if not, more. Hotels used to be fully packed during this season, while finding an idle tour operator was very difficult. Resorts were also overbooked during this time of the year.   

Especially the last two years saw a huge influx of foreign visitors, with the country becoming one of the preferred destinations of international tourists thanks to its tangible and intangible heritages. A large number of travel agencies prefer Ethiopia over other African countries due to its untapped tourism market.

“Egypt, Kenya, South African and Seychelles as well as other African countries used to be preferred destinations of international tourists for long. In the last five years, the trend has changed and the agencies started to focus on Ethiopia’s tourism market after understanding it is untapped,” said Kibrom Tesfaye, a tourism sector expert and a tour guide with over a decade of experience.

“This, however, totally changed after the Coronavirus. I, for instance, received requests from over 50 groups of tourists (each group having 10-18 tourists) during last year’s epiphany, while zero requests have been made this year. Coronavirus has killed our tourism sector, while its resurrection has been hampered by internal conflicts and political unrest,” Kibrom remarked.

Ever since its emergence by the end of 2019, COVID-19 has brought the hospitality industry an unprecedented challenge. Soon after countries started to close their borders, it has been among the hardest hit, chiefly due to fears of community spread through travel and group environments. With cancellation of hotels and travel bookings, this has led to revenue loss and resulted in a surge in unemployment.

UNCTAD, in its report published in July 2020, estimated the world’s tourism sector could lose at least USD1.2 trillion, or 1.5 percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP) due to the Coronavirus. In case of Ethiopia, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism reported over a billion USD has been lost to the pandemic.  

Just a month after Ethiopia reported its first case of the Coronavirus, the occupancy rate of hotels in Addis Ababa reached two percent, while 56 percent of hotels in the capital were closed, according to Addis Ababa Hotel Owners’ Association’s report published on April 2020. Keeping this in mind, hotels lost USD35 million monthly due to COVID-19.

To buck this trend, the Ministry of Culture & Tourism officially reopened the country's tourism sector as of October 2020 after six months of interruption because of the pandemic. A National Safe Travel Protocol has been applied across hotels, tour operators and historical sites to avoid possible spread of the virus, while restrictive quarantine measures required upon entry have been lifted to attract visitors.

“Even though there has been a considerable increase in the number of visitors after we reopened tourist sites with the necessary precaution, the trend did not linger as the fighting in Tigray broke out shortly after. With international media outlets reporting the war in Ethiopia and embassies issuing travel alert, bookings by tourists plummeted since the beginning of the fighting,” said Sileshi Girma, Director-General of Tourism Ethiopia - a federal government body tasked to market Ethiopia’s tourist attraction sites and heritages.

Be that as it may, the discovery of the new variant of the Coronavirus is sparking new concerns on how long the pandemic would wreak havoc on the tourism sector. Several countries across the globe have already started to close their borders after they confirmed the spread of the new variant. With a surge in Coronavirus cases in Europe and the US, stay-home campaigns resumed with people being forced to apply social distancing rules in order to achieve the much-needed flattening of the curve.

“The hospitality industry is still struggling to cope with the sharp decline in tourist arrivals and lost business as a result of the pandemic. It is still not clear when travel will return but once the vaccine is widely distributed and travelers have the confidence to fly, you can expect to see some recovery,” says David Desta, an Associate of JLL Hotels & Hospitality Group. 

With many nations under lockdown and travel restrictions, experts fear it may take long for the tourism sector to recover from the repercussions of COVID-19. “The situation is getting worse. Until September, some hotels were at least making money off of serving as quarantine centers. Now there are almost no international visitors even though we are at the end of the peak season,” remarked Benyam Bisrat, Owner of Jupiter Hotels and President of Addis Ababa Hotel Owners Association.

“Undoubtedly, leisure tourists are now unthinkable. But we were hopeful that business and conference tourism would revive in the last four months. AU and UNECA, our biggest customers, are yet to hold conferences and meetings and current trends show this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.” 

World Tourism Organization (WTO) expects a strong rebound in the year 2021 based on the assumption of a reversal in the evolution of the pandemic, significant improvement in traveler confidence and major lifting of travel restrictions by the middle of the year. Nonetheless, the return to 2019 levels in terms of international arrivals would take two to four years, according to the Organization.

Kibrom fears Ethiopia may experience more decline in tourism receipts unless peace and stability are restored throughout the country, especially in Tigray, where there is still an active fighting. “There is no way tourists come to visit a country labeled a war zone by international media outlets. Few understand our politics and explore which part is stable and which is not. Some of my clients are even asking whether we are alive or not, thinking the whole country is at war,” he remarked.

In a bid to cope up with the impacts of the pandemic, industry players are now shifting to domestic tourism, which has been serving as a potential weapon to recover the losses. Contrary to the huge focus given to foreign visitors, hotels, resorts and tour operators are now offering incentives to encourage people to explore their own country.

“Domestic tourism has two benefits. It creates tie among Ethiopians with different backgrounds, contributing to the long term peace and stability of the country. It is also helpful for the economy as those who lost their jobs in the tourism sector to the Coronavirus pandemic would be able to secure a job again,” said Teshome from Balageru Tours. The tour operator recently launched a new tourism product called Zemed Tiyeka (literally translated into visiting relatives).

Melkamu Mekonnen, Director of Haile Hotels and Resorts, agrees. “Domestic tourism has a big potential. In fact, believing in its potential, our target has always been locals, helping us quickly revive from the impacts of COVID-19. Now our occupancy rate has reached almost 30 percent,” he said.

Many international organizations, including WTO and the World Bank, have advised countries to promote domestic tourism swiftly to minimize the impacts of the pandemic. WTO, in its report published in September 2020, highlighted the importance of domestic tourism in the recovery of many destinations from the economic impacts of the pandemic, while at the same time safeguarding jobs, protecting livelihoods and allowing the social benefits tourism offers to also return.

Understanding the importance of domestic tourism, several countries, including Italy, Malaysia, Cost Rica and Thailand implemented different initiatives such as offering travel discount vouchers, personal tax relief for expenses related to local travel, introducing new holidays and subsidizing accommodation, among others. Ethiopia has also introduced new initiatives with the same motives.

“We have introduced different domestic tourism products, including the launching of bike ride tour and motivating government agencies to organize meetings in tourist destination areas. We are also working with religious institutions like Mahbere Kidusan to formalize pilgrimages and make them a source of living,” said Sileshi, the Head of Ethiopia Tourism. 

But these are not enough for Kibrom.

“Many people barely have disposable income for leisure activities. But this is not well understood among players of the hospitality market. Unless hotels make their rate affordable to the majority, the locals will not be encouraged to spend their hard-earned money for travel,” said Kibrom who recommends the promotion of local community accommodation, where people living in tourist sites allow tourists stay at their homes for an affordable rate.

“Youth interested in the tourism sector must be organized as a small enterprise and finance should be provided to them so that they build shelters near tourist attraction sites. Universities across the country must work together and organize students willing to visit their country for a subsidized rate,” he remarked.