Tourism is considered as one of the main trade and industry activities in the world that contributes to the economic, cultural, and political advancement of various regions.
Mastering the art of tourist hospitality for over 30 plus years in Ethiopia is one Samrawit Moges Beyene – a successful Ethiopian entrepreneur who founded Travel Ethiopia in 1994, a tour company involved in ecotourism. Travel Ethiopia was the first company to hire women as tour guides and following its success she went on to start Village Ethiopia in 1998, a company that used to operate Bilen Lodge in Afar which provided employment to the local community. Where Bielen Lodge was handed to the community.
Samrawit has also started a floral business that is the first in the sector to hire persons with disability. Capital caught up with Samrawit for an inside insight on the sector as well as its development over the years. Excerpts;
Capital: Tell us about yourself and the company you run?
Samrawit: My name is Samrawit Moges. I am the founder of Travel Ethiopia – a private, eco-minded tour and safari operator which has been in business for more than 25 years following its establishment in 1994.
Apart from the tourism network industry, since 2003, I have also ventured into the agriculture and horticulture sector through our Chancho and Samore flower farms which sit on a 30-hectare plot of land in Sululta town in the Oromia region, which is about 20 km northwest of Addis Ababa. The farm was founded by my late husband Thomas Mattanovich and Samor flower farm that is in partnership with Dutch shareholders.
Capital: What are your views on the tourism sector in Ethiopia?
Samrawit: I started working in the tourism sector after I graduated from Addis Ababa University. I worked at the National Tour Operation (NTO), a government tour company that was under the umbrella of the Tourism Commission at that time, currently the Ministry of Tourism. After working for 10 years I established Travel Ethiopia. For me, Ethiopia is a unique country, with a harmonious blend of culture, nature, cuisine, arts & architecture brimming with unlimited numbers of fun & frolic.
In my view, Ethiopia attracts people from all walks of life. It offers a myriad of travel activities ranging from adventures like the jaggedly carved Simien Mountains, a UNESCO heritage site, to the Danakil Depression, which is the lowest and hottest place on earth and is said to be a geological marvel with more than 30 active and dormant volcanoes.
Ethiopia is also known for its rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, Wukro, and the obelisks of Axum, which are renowned for their architectural beauty and mesmerizing history, giving you a glimpse of one of the greatest empires in history. Ethiopia should be on the bucket list for all travel enthusiasts as it’s popularly referred to as the cradle of mankind.
Through time the industry has been moving forward, but not at a satisfying pace as expected. The tourism industry in general as observed in all sectors is challenges both global and local hurdling the growth here and there just like any other sector. Generally, nevertheless, Infrastructure and other related developments can be observed these last few years.
Furthermore, the number of Tour Operators has been growing in stride as many companies are engaging in the hospitality industry. But I believe there is still room for growth.
Capital: How does the industry compare from past to present in terms of development? What do you suggest for better development?
Samrawit: A few decades back, many touristic sites and related infrastructure were not developed, at the same time the flow of tourists to Ethiopia was low. During the Derg regime, there were only four famous hotels; Tana hotel in Bahirdar, Goha in Gondor, Roha in Lalibela, and Yeha in Axum which could meet basic standards. All four were owned by the government which later were privatized during the EPDRF regime.
Then the private sector was allowed to engage in different activates including building hotels, operating tours, and filling the gaps where services were required by the sector. However, the gap between the demand for more hotels, infrastructure, and transport facilities, cooperation between the tour operators, hoteliers, concerned government entities & local offices needs more coordination & effort.
The tourism sector in Ethiopia has been challenged constantly by political instability, war, and also the global pandemic.
On the brighter side, in comparison to former governments’ regimes, the Abiy Ahmed administration has placed immense emphasis on the sector by considering it as a priority sector. The Prime Minister has been spearheading in promoting the sector which plays an integral role in the economic growth of our country by generating forex.
COVID-19 pandemic has hit the hospitality sector adversely; however, most African countries have been trying various mechanisms to expand local tourism. On the global arena, they have succeeded in attracting international tourists back again their businesses & national economies are bouncing back, as well as have a global bounce back.
We can learn a lot from the East African countries namely Kenya, Tanzania & Uganda. With limited tourist attractions as compared to the possibilities, we have mostly woven to around wildlife the aforementioned operate a lot on tourism& generate substantial amounts of hard currency. On the other hand, Ethiopia has more tourist attraction heritages, and unlimited opportunities yet the lack of infrastructure, hotels, and awareness in the society is still playing a second violin. Having Ethiopian Airlines a world-known company we should take the advantage of retaining the lion`s share mainly the transit passengers to start with.
In my opinion, I suggest the government give its full support to the sector by developing modern international tourism training centers thereby increasing affluent manpower in the sector. Every other graduate in Egypt has studied either tourism or water engineering. Moreover, I would encourage the private sector to invest heavily in the industry. Tourism is a very fast-growing industry, moreover, the employment opportunity is immense.
The media should also work on awareness creation among the public with regards to the importance of tourism and tourists and the beauty of protecting our heritage. This is beneficial as it goes a long way in helping the local community. Tourism plays a major role in inducing local economies. Unless local tourism sites benefit from the flow of tourists, we have not accomplished our mission. Lalibela is a good example here, while this is the site that is visited heavily & generates a significant amount of income the local it has no dripping effect on the locals.
Tourism is a fast-growing sector and can easily generate huge revenue apart from providing the locals with employment opportunities. And for Ethiopia, it should be the backbone of the economy as it generates substantial amounts of foreign currency. Visitors always mention that Ethiopia is a country where they do not spend money as most attractions do not have souvenirs to sell out and not many schemes and programs are designed for tourists to spend their money. In other countries, such programs & schemes are well developed and renewed as needed.
The private sector needs to be supported by the government and due attention given to the sector. Government offices including Ethiopian Embassies, foreign offices, Ethiopian nationals working for the UN, and other international organizations, the Diaspora at large need to introduce & promote Ethiopia to the world. In this ever-evolving and exciting world, we need to develop our own promotions by using technologies, the internet, and all that modern developments bestow us with. As this is a huge endeavor, no one firm or the private sector on its own can successfully launch such programs. The private sector should need to work hand in hand with the government.
Capital: Is there anything you want to add?
Samrawit: A new dawn is breaking over Ethiopia. Addis Ababa is beautifying and preparing itself to receive a million Diasporas for this Christmas and new year. One can feel the vibe in the city. Hotels are reading their services, tours are being organized, we are all preparing to present our best foot to our long missed brothers and sisters. With the fresh wind of peace breathing over our country, it is high time that the tourism and hospitality sector deliver high-quality services.
In this highly competitive sector, to deliver internationally accepted services, the sector needs to be equipped with standard infrastructure, best practices in tourist handling, qualified manpower in all areas of tourism, enough 4×4 vehicles responding to the typical needs (wildlife tours including safari site seeing’s and hunting, historical routes, mountain hiking) boats, camping area development and equipment, especially equipped tourist buses. These all are prerequisites to develop tourism and handle the influxes of tourists. The Government needs to give priority to the sector by providing it with duty-free privileges for the import of critically needed vehicles, equipment, and other related necessities. Egypt and Kenya have invested a portion of their capital budget for years before they started enjoying the fruits of their decades’ expenditures. Not only do governments need to invest in infrastructure and developing the sector, but banks also need to provide long-term and less interest rate loans to the sector’s actors as in the long run, this sector does generate hard currencies to the economy. However, taking into consideration the blunder made in the past allocating duty-free privileges should be based on the merit of the tour operator in generating foreign currency.
Capital: What are the success stories you have in Travel Ethiopia?
Samrawit: As a member of the responsible tourism network, Travel Ethiopia also tries to minimize negative, social, economic, and environmental impacts and generates economic benefits for local communities. Travel Ethiopia is especially committed to contributing to women’s empowerment in Ethiopia. Travel Ethiopia became an example for others in the tourism sector in Ethiopia by being the first tour agency to hire permanent female guides. We also have numerous initiatives to minimize damages to the environment and wildlife. This allows our clients to travel responsibly, without the worry of causing destruction to local cultures, environments, and economies.
Capital: Is there anything you want to add?
Samrawit: We just went through a gruesome, ugly, and devastating war. Too many lives have been lost. Families ruined, infrastructure demolished, economies destroyed, schools, hospitals, in short, the fabrics of the society driven to the brinks of annihilation.
Following the historic tradition of our ancestors, our Prime Minister’s decision to lead the war-front has yet again affirmed our history. A history of a free people on a free land!
Coming back to your question, and back to our issue on tourism and its challenges, like his leadership on the war-front, knowing his affiliation for tourism, the green revolution, and his keen interest in developing Ethiopia in all sectors, I would love to request our Prime Minister to provide us with an audience and dialogue with the tourism private sector to have a common understanding and a roadmap to the future.