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From Addis to Lalibela on a hot air balloon

From Addis to Lalibela on a hot air balloon

By Kaitlin Junod

Hovering in a basket over Addis with the moon hanging in the sky and the rising sun spreading pink rays across the mountainous horizon is a surreal way to start the day. For Bram van Loosbroek, this is a weekly routine. In his hot air balloon, he treats tourists and Ethiopians alike to what one can only describe as a once in a lifetime experience.

Flying is in van Loosbroek’s blood, and this year he hopes to take his company, Abyssinia Ballooning, to new heights. The only hot air balloon service in Ethiopia is beginning flights in scenic Lalibela, developing a training program for its first Ethiopian pilot and exploring the possibility of offering paragliding.

Van Loosbroek, whose family has operated a ballooning company in the Netherlands for 35 years, first began flying over Addis Ababa in 2012. With his expansion to Lalibela, he is hoping to take full advantage of the country’s still-developing tourism industry.

“The potential of tourism in Ethiopia is huge,” van Loosbroek said. “You can not persuade one who wants to lay on the beach to come and be in the sun. This is not the country for that. It is a country of extremes, beautiful nature and history, so it has to be a person who wants to see and know more, but there are many of these travellers in the world.”

While the Ethiopian tourism industry does lag behind when compared to some African countries, it has been steadily growing in the past decade. Statistics from the World Bank show that the number of international tourism arrivals in 2014 was 770,000, a great jump from a mere 103,000 in 1995. Comparatively, Kenya had about 1.2 million international tourism arrivals in 2014.

“What I like about Ethiopia is that it is amazingly pure because it’s never been colonized, and you see it in their culture and identity,” van Loosbroek said. “And this unique identity will attract tourists.”

For the adventurous spirits who do come to Ethiopia, Lalibela is a key attraction with its famous historical churches and wondrous natural surroundings.

“In the beginning, I didn’t have any tourist customers because the tourists come to Addis, they stay for one night and they immediately go to Lalibela, the Semien Mountains and to the south,” van Loosbroek said. “That’s the reason why I want to move with the balloon and paragliding to Lalibela.”

Local officials and church authorities enthusiastically supported the company’s expansion, he said. By offering more recreational activities, more tourists will be attracted to the region, will stay overnight and will spend more money. By November, van Loosbroek hopes to have a full operation running in Lalibela, which would include one balloon that carries eight to 10 passengers and two paragliding pilots, in addition to the services he already offers in Addis.

Currently, Abyssinia Ballooning makes flights out of Addis on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings. With high operational costs and a staff of 10 people, van Loosbroek hopes that moving to Lalibela will help build his business into a profitable and thriving venture.

“The opportunity for us to start flying weekdays is in Lalibela,” van Loosbroek said. “And if we fly weekdays, then we slowly get a healthy balloon company. You cannot have a sustainable company with two flights a week.”

For now, van Loosbroek and his team make the trip to Lalibela once a month to offer flights and to test conditions for paragliding, a sport where the pilot and passenger jump from a mountain with a parachute, which then catches wind and slowly brings them back to the ground.

When it comes to selecting new pilots for his company, van Loosbroek has only one concern: his clients’ safety. “There is one golden rule my father taught me: it is better to be sorry to have stayed on the ground than be sorry that you are in the air,” he said. “This is the general rule for pilots in the world, for every pilot.”

Van Loosbroek will certainly have this in mind as he selects candidates for the new pilot training program he has been developing with the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority. In addition to training Civil Aviation staff on how to do annual safety tests on balloons, van Loosbroek has been developing plans to have the first Ethiopian pilot in the air by 2018.

The training program consists of 1000 hours of theoretical study, which includes meteorology, navigation, air law, radio communication, human behavior and physics. After that, pilots undergo practical training in a small balloon. Exams will take place in the Netherlands, or a Dutch examiner approved by the civil aviation authority will be brought to Ethiopia.

The new pilot will most likely have a background in aviation, van Loosbroek said, which means he or she will either come from a private charter company or Ethiopian Airlines. Whoever it is, though, must embody the values of Abyssinia Ballooning.

“We want to be hospitable, we want to be friendly and we want to offer a great product and experience,” van Loosbroek said. “So these values have to be in the person in order to be an extension of the company.” Staying true to these values has allowed van Loosbroek to weather the many challenges of starting a new business in a foreign country, such as expensive start-up costs and navigating a complicated bureaucracy.

For other entrepreneurs who wish to try their luck in Ethiopia, van Loosbroek has some simple advice. “You have to have some kind of feeling—falling in love, let’s call it— in order to survive the hard times that you will have,” he said. “My advice is, if it doesn’t suit you, and it doesn’t feel good, then don’t start. And if it does, be patient, be polite, but also be persistent.”

Ed.’s Note: The writer is on an internship at The Reporter.