The past two years had been particularly hard on Ethiopia’s tourism sector. The political unrest in Oromia, Amhara and Ethio-Somali regional states have stained the relatively peaceful Ethiopian political environment. Tourism was the first sector to take a hit after the outbreak of the unrest. What is puzzling is the fact that official figures are telling a different story. In spite of the unrest, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism reports that the sector has never been better in terms of tourist flow and revenue, write Asrat Seyoum and Birhanu Fikade.
Filled with a lot of hopes and dreams, on March 14, 2014, Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalgen launched two specialized government bodies – Ethiopian Tourism Transformation Council and Ethiopian Tourism Organization – to usher in an era of transformation in the dormant Ethiopian tourism sector. At the official inaugural ceremony held at the conference hall of the UNECA, Hailemariam announced that the Council, chaired by him, would provide a strategic guidance to the tittering tourism sector with view of dramatically improving the foreign exchange earning of the nation.
“Ethiopia has been portrayed negatively in the international arena for long,” the PM reiterated; however, he noted “such trends are changing quickly” and what needs to be done is keep the momentum going and capitalize on the gains. In this regard, the council would focus on development of tourist destinations and marketing and image improving of the nation as whole at the global arena.
True to form, Hailemariam’s administration had big plans for the sector in the years to follow. For one, Ethiopia had a target to become one of the top tourist destinations in Africa by 2020 attracting more than 2.5 million visitors a year and raking USD six billion in form of revenue.
If economic planning of the Ethiopia government in the past decade is something to go by ambitious plans are in ample supply in the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Deomcratic Front (EPRDF) led government. By the time, the PM launched the aforementioned initiatives, the annual tourist turnover in Ethiopia was not more than half a million; and the revenue fairly lower than two billion dollars. And hence, the total tourist numbers were expected to improve by more than two million and the revenue by additional four billion dollars in the space of five years, if the targets are to be attained.
Most importantly, by that time, Ethiopian tourism sector was one of the lowest ranking in the world and mediocre by Africa standards standing at 120th and 17th levels in the world and Africa, respectively.
Three and a half years later, this week, Hirut Woldemariam (PhD), Minister of Culture and Tourism (MoCT), appeared before the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) to report on the progress of the tourism sector. According to Hirut, the tides have really turned for the tourism sector in recent years. “The flow of tourist to Ethiopia has been showing real progress from time to time,” Hirut told lawmakers, and asserted that the sector has attained 90 percent of its targets both in terms of flow and revenue in the past two and a half years of the second Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP-II).
On top of that, Hirut enlightened MPs about the encouraging performance of the sector in the first half of the current fiscal years. “In the first six months, a total of 485,806 foreign tourists visited Ethiopia generating USD 1.8 billion for the country,” she lauded. This year’s performance is 10.5 percent higher compared to last year, according to minister’s report.
“This is not a success story of the ministry alone,” said Hirut, as magnanimous as she could be, but shared the victory with her diligent associates at Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Government Communications Affairs Office.
The state minister of MoCT, Meaza Gebremedhin, as well is quite optimistic about the recent trends in the tourism numbers. In an exclusive interview with The Reporter, Meaza argued that given the half year performance, the sector looks to be well positioned to attain its target of catering to 1.2 million foreign visitors and generating USD 4.2 billion set as target for the current fiscal year. In fact, the authorities in the MoCT are quite hopeful that the 2020 target is well within their grasp given the current trend of growth.
Unfortunately, the leaders at MoCT look to be alone in feeling this optimism in this sector. Equally prominent narrative in the tourism sector of Ethiopia in the past two years is the fact that it is highly challenged by so many structural problems and more specifically the recent political unrest in the country. According to sector operators, the recent political unrest has resulted in the cancellation of many tour bookings in the past two years. Even the ministry does not deny the devastating impact the 10-month state of emergency had on the sector.
Travel warnings issued by some of the biggest tourist source countries like the US, UK and other European nations has been particularly difficult on the tourism sector of Ethiopia. Tony Hickey, General Manager of Ethiopian Quadrants, a tour and travel company registered and operating in Ethiopia, has no illusions as to what the impact of travel warnings mean to the tourism sector. According to him, it means “invalidating the travel insurance” of travelers for foreign tour companies and that would mean no insurance coverage for their clients and hence would greatly discourage travel.
Hence, the great contradiction remains: how tourism was able to exhibit such impressive growth (in flow and revenue) in the past two years while at the same time the nation was facing its most difficult challenge in the past 25 years. In fact, both the flow of tourists and the revenue that was generated are severely challenged by spectators and sector operators.
As far as tourist flow is concerned, the sector reporting as much as 900,000 and 886,780 coming to Ethiopia in 2015/16 and 2016/17, respectively, appears to be hard to swallow for operators like Hickey. According to him, there are two aspects of these figures that warranty’s investigation. The first is the actual number of tourists who are visiting the renowned historical heritage sites in the Northern Tourist Circuit of Ethiopia that encompasses the Axum obelisk, the Lalibella monolithic churches, the Semen Mountains, Lake Tana and the like.
Studies say that the overall “tourism product” in Ethiopia mainly hinges in the Northern and Southern Tourism Circuits, where the latter is made up of the Omo Valley and a number of national parks. In general, the North circuit is made of rich historical and cultural heritages featuring old rock-hewn churches, obelisks and like. On the other hand, the South is also made of equally fascinating ethnological and natural attractions; and between the two, there are nine UNESCO registered world heritages, far more than any Africa countries.
According studies, as high as 80 percent of the visitors, who go to the North, never leave the circuit without landing in Lalibella. Hickey as well agrees with this. And that, affords the number of visitors at Lalibella the power to be indicative of the magnitude of the general flow to the North. Based on this, Hickey has a hard time buying the numbers that are being churned out by the ministry. “In its best days, Lalibella would cater to 50,000 visitors a year,” Hickey told The Reporter, and in the past two years the flow to Lalibella has gone down to “25,000”.
The North being the major attraction at his time, the Southern Circuit hosts even less number of passengers confusing the whole close to one million visitors which is reported by the ministry. “Since Lalibella and others usually feature cover fees to enter into the heritages, it is quite easy get these number,” he asserts.
The second challenge lays in the very nature of the historical sites. “There are no sites in Ethiopia with capacity to cater for a million tourists and more,” he asserts. Hence, Hickey alludes to few other options to explain the number issued by the minister. The first and very obvious one is the focus given to transit passengers which are growing in number due to the expansion of Ethiopian Airlines, in recent years. While the other one is the carrying capacity of the sites themselves and being suitable to accommodating this many customers.
As far as Getnet Yigzaw, public relations director at the Ethiopian Tourism Organization (ETO), is concerned the official tourism numbers are done in-line with the UNWTO definition of what a “Tourist” constitutes. According to Getnet, tourists are defined as individuals travelling from one country to another for leisure, business or conference, for sports events, adventure or historical visits, or for medical services or those who travel to visit relatives. While fulfilling these conditions, a tourist should stay out of his/her country of residence for a time not less than 24 hours and for not more than one year continuously.
Latest definition of tourist, in fact, goes a bit deeper than this. Contemporary definition rather does not have a specific minimum timeframe but only maximum of only one year. Meaza as well agrees that the UNWTO definition is the standard that the MoCT tries to adhere to; “However, even basing the measures on the UNWTO definition, the principal source of information for tourist flow is the data obtained from Ethiopian Immigration Office,” she told The Reporter.
For Getnet, the data collected from Immigration Office is not even ideal for tourism purposes. “Mind you, this data is not primarily gathered for the purposes of estimating the flow of tourists; this would have serious shortcomings,” he argues. As matter of fat, Getnet is of the view that the massive flow of foreigners to Ethiopia across the boarders without using the official port of entry would have serious understating effect on the tourist flow estimates. Still some other studies estimate form the totality of tourist flow coming to Ethiopia at the very minimum 70-80 percent are entering to Ethiopia via airport.
The state minister, on the other hand, sees other benefits of using immigration data such as getting unified figure for the nation since it avoids double counting that might have arisen from sourcing the numbers from the dispersed tourist destinations or regional offices.
For Hickey, the clear discrepancy between the low-level of visitors at renowned historical sites and blotted official figures clearly attests to one thing that is the prominence of the growing number of Ethiopian Airlines transit passengers in the tourism statistics. Yet again, he is well aware that this is something that is made possible by the relaxed UNWTO definition of a “tourist”.
This very problem was spotted in an earlier World Bank report published in 2006: In Makeda’s Footsteps: Towards a Strategy for Pro-Poor Tourism Development. The report made important distinction about different categories of tourists like Leisure, Conference, Business, and the like. For the period ranging 2001-2005 it analyzed the tourist flow to find although leisure tourism was still highest contributor to total figure at about 30 percent both business and transit passenger figures were observed to be following closely at second position with 20 percent.
Nevertheless, the study makes another important observation which is the growth rate of leisure tourist flow (5-10 percent) is far lower than transit growth which grew at 15-25 percent. Another indication in cited at the study is the fact that the disaggregation of the tourist figures by country of origin shows that visitors from African nations ranks at the top claiming 37 percent of annual flow supportive of transit passenger and conference tourism figures as opposed to visitors from Europe and America following at 24 and 18 percent.
As far as Yared Haile-Meskel, managing director of YMH Consulting PLC., sees the nation’s strict immigration laws as deterrent factor to smooth flow of tourists to Ethiopia. “These days, it has become increasingly difficult to obtain visa for foreigners coming to Ethiopia on business and related visits,” Yared told The Reporter in a telephone interview. This, according to him, in addition to discouraging visitors, is also pushing many visitors to seek tourist visa or state the purpose of their visit as tourism to avoid the hassle.
“If this starts to happen frequently, eventually, there is a danger of distorting tourism figures,” Yared says. In fact, this become more difficult when one considers the estimation of the revenue from tourism activities.
Estimating tourism revenue, although dependent on the tourist flow, it is a different ball game altogether. According to Gezahegn Abate, Public Relations Director with MoCT, annual tourism revenue is calculated based on the average stay of a standard tourist in Ethiopia which is around seven days and the average spending per day which estimated at 230 dollars at moment in Ethiopia. The combination of the total tourist flow with two variables would yield the dollar earning of nation form tourism.
Here is an interesting fact; currently the calculation of the total tourism revenue is limited to the above basic arithmetic. Rather, the total tourism revenue, according to official calculations, also incorporates the operating revenue of one of the most successful public enterprise in the country – Ethiopian Airlines. Gezahegn confirms that Ethiopian Airlines operating revenue is incorporated into the total foreign exchange earning of the tourism sector. This reinforces some of the claims that the glaring figures out of MoCT is benefiting from the fast growing national flag carrier and the need to decouple the revenue figures as well to afford better understanding of the sector to lawmakers and policy makers.
When it is all said and done, although both figures could not be said to be false, technically, (due to the broad definition of tourism), still commentators argue that policymakers should focus on the disaggregated picture of the nation’s tourism performance so that they can make an informed decision. This point is share by Hickey; he is of the view that top policy making bodies should dig deeper into the sector and decouple the success stories of the airliner from the actual (hardcore) tourist activities such as leisure tourism. Unlike the airline, the nation’s major historical attractions are in need of strong work, he says. On top of that, he continues, there needs to be better training services and regulation for local guides and other businesses in the tourism value chain.