In the late 1950s, Ethiopian Airlines launched an advertising campaign in the Western media that touted the ancient kingdom as Africa’s “newest travel adventure.”
More than half a century later, the huge East African nation has yet to live up to that lofty billing. But it might not be much longer.
The sights, the scenery, the culture are already there. Ethiopian’s ancient orthodox Christianity has endowed the nation with thousands of churches and monasteries, some of them enshrined as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
A succession of empire and kingdoms added medieval forts, palaces and tombs like the Gondar citadel and the towering stone stele of Axum.
From Lake Tana and the Blue Nile to the red-rock Gheralta Mountains, the arid Danakil Desert and the lush Omo Valley, the landscapes are astounding and incredibly varied. Ethiopia’s wildlife riches are also diverse, from typical African savannah animals in the south to unique indigenous creatures like the gelada baboon and Ethiopian wolf.
The missing ingredient has always been infrastructure — the kind of hotels, restaurants and service that tourism rivals like Kenya and South Africa mastered decades ago.
A turning point
“Tourism was on the back burner for a long time,” says Solomon Tadesse, CEO of the Ethiopian Tourism Organization (ETO). “The country was going through major changes and the government’s priorities were health, education, communication.”
Not to mention drought, famine and revolution.
“There were fundamental reasons why tourism infrastructure was not in place.”
According to Tadesse, the government finally decided in 2013 that tourism could generate jobs, income and wealth just like any other economic sector.
A tourism transformation council was established to provide direction to the industry and the ETO was created to handle marketing, promotion and product development.
The tourism push coincided with a massive upsurge in foreign investment from China, India, Turkey and other nations that boosted GDP to annual growth rates of around 10%.
With the Ethiopian economy going like gangbusters, tourism is slowly but surely moving toward the great expectations generated more than half a century ago.
New infrastructure, expanding industry
Addis Ababa is in the midst of a building boom that includes a massive expansion of Bole International Airport and a number of new hotels including glitzy high-rise offerings from Marriott and InterContinental currently under construction.
The national capital has a new light rail system (the first in Africa) and the Chinese government has undertaken the $4-billion task of rebuilding and modernizing the old railroad line between Addis and Djibouti.
A brand new superhighway whisks traffic through the Great Rift Valley south of the capital while a nationwide road improvement campaign is rapidly improving land transport between other major cities.
Provincial capitals are getting new airport terminals, and in some cases (like Jinka), airports where there was nothing before.
Ethiopian Airlines is also bulking up.
Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, the national air carrier is in the midst of a massive expansion that includes the latest Boeing and Airbus aircraft.
The route network is also growing, with New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Dublin, Cape Town and Manila added since early 2015.
Tadesse expects tourism arrivals to reach one million for the first time this year, doubling the number of visitors from just three years ago.
With so many new hotels and infrastructure improvements, Addis Ababa is ready for the rush. But doubts remain about whether the rest of the nation is prepared to become the next big thing in African travel.