Ethiopia’s Triumphant Return: Finding the ‘New Normal’ in Tourism Post COVID-19

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Ethiopia’s tourism industry is certainly no stranger to hardship. In these unprecedented times, failure to address the effects of COVID-19 may have a devesting impact on tourism not just in Ethiopia but worldwide!

By Gebeyaw Ambelu Degarege
The travel and tourism sector has long been regarded as an ‘invisible export’ that is highly sensitive to a number of external challenges including, political instability, terrorism, crime, epidemic outbreaks, and a host of other calamities. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception to the aforementioned list of misfortunes and is shaping up to be one of the most significant events the tourism sector has experienced since the global financial crisis of 2007. In an attempt to contain the spread of this pandemic, several countries including Ethiopia have taken extraordinary measures such as quarantines, social distancing, travel bans (restrictions on inbound and outbound travel), boarder closures, all of which have been a de facto closure of tourism globally. Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the travel and tourism landscape around the world, even more so in Ethiopia’s already often overlooked market.
This reality spells big trouble for the tourism sector, especially international tourism. As the pandemic rages on, several tourism related businesses such as airlines and tour operators have had to cease operations and hotels have shuttered their doors in response as well. The result of these spontaneous closures is apparent in thousands of workers in the tourism sector that are suddenly out of work with no resolution in sight. Tour companies have had to either reschedule, postpone, and/or refund monies for services booked in advance. For example, Ethiopian Airlines suspended flights to 30 countries on 20 March 2020. Taking into consideration the many other airline carriers that needed to make the same difficult decision, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimated that global air transport industry revenues could fall $252 billion, which is 44 percent below 2019’s totals. Ethiopia’s tourism sector will definitely feel the long-lasting effects of these deficits. Even though tourism’s contribution to the Ethiopian economy has been modest over time, COVID-19 has cut it entirely. The UN Economic Commission for Africa estimates that Ethiopian Airlines, which is the prominent player of Ethiopia’s tourism sector, stands to lose up to 260 million.
Ultimately, the impact of COVID-19 on both global and Ethiopian tourism sectors would largely depend on how long the epidemic will last. Though it is tough to estimate when the tourism sector will return to a ‘new normal’ now that the pandemic is reportedly under control in some countries and restrictions are expected to be lifted at some point in the near future. However, the tourism sector’s recovery is not only a question of how long the pandemic will go on, but whether the tourists will return when the pandemic is over.
In this regard, one thing is certain, it is now time to strategize for short, medium and long-term recovery plans for Ethiopia’s tourism sector. To this effect, the Ethiopian government and other groups have already taken proactive steps, and introduced several emergency measures, in response to the pandemic crisis, mainly focusing on hotels and tour operators. It is not my intention to evaluate the overall initiatives taken by the government. The objective of this opinion paper is to explore the possible trajectory in which travel and tourism might be heading in an effort to offer a starting point for governmental action to address COVID-19 induced challenges afflicting Ethiopia’s tourism sector. The tourism sector needs to be reimagined with a different way of thinking and working to face new challenges and opportunities in order to revitalize the developmental impact of the sector. Some ideas to this end are discussed as follows:
During the crisis period.
As noted above, undoubtedly, Ethiopia’s tourism industry is now undergoing a crisis. At this point, while the government should take a lion’s share of the responsibility, the priority of all tourism stakeholders should be geared towards managing the crisis and not to make COVID-19’s effects on tourism worse. The government needs to prepare and implement appropriate recovery plans, strategies and actions to protect businesses, employees and communities. The focus is to support businesses of different scales: large, medium and small tourism enterprises. Will the country able to provide aid packages such as emergency small business loans to tourism businesses is a big question?
Low-paid jobs in tourism have been disproportionately affected in these challenging times. Tourism industries need to carefully ensure the safety and livelihoods of their staff. This is critical in developing countries where lack of trained and experienced personnel is acute. Jointly, government and business owners need to recognize their employees and local communities in and around tourism destination sites.
Equally important is ensuring the safety and livelihoods of the local communities, typically the ‘unsung heroes’ of tourism resources conservation and protection. It is important to underline that in a situation where tourism livelihoods are compromised, nature and heritage protection will not remain as a priority for communities. For instance, one should not expect wildlife conservation in national parks when people do not even have food at their disposal. Hence, all tourism industry partners should organize supporting mechanisms for the tourism-dependent communities during the crisis period. The local communities who are the guardians of the tourism resources need to be carefully considered in these challenging times.
During COVID-19, Ethiopia’s claim for sustainable tourism development needs to be seriously evaluated and considered in the context of the outbreak of COVID-19. Tourism sector performance is not limited to the direct effects of COVID-19 on Ethiopia’s tourism sector. Its social and economic effects (such as human health, economic stability and peace and security) will spread to a number of sectors such as agriculture, which will also have indirect effects on Ethiopia’s tourism sector. Hence, beyond direct tourism-focused responses, longer-term recovery strategies that embrace and recognize the integrated presence of tourism with other sectors are essential. Besides, rethinking and transforming tourism policy instruments and interventions are essential to best fit with the new future ahead. Equally important is the monitoring of the situation to see what the longer-term implications will bring back to the sector.
Preparation for a ‘new normal’ tourism (post-COVID-19 tourism).
The responsible tourism authorities need to foresee and better understand how the post-COVID-19 tourism landscape could change and devise new systems. Recognizing that crisis is ongoing, designing both short-term and long-term solutions that can be implemented in context to the change at global, regional and local levels is of paramount importance.
Seeing COVID-19 as a blessing in disguise to the Ethiopian tourism sector. Concerned tourism authorities and stakeholders from national to local to sectors, to individual businesses need to revisit their ‘business as usual’ routines. The Ethiopian tourism industry needs to rethink the way it engages with communities. Counting and reporting tourist arrivals and receipts at the national level should not be the sole measure of tourism sector performance. At the very least, tourism should ascertain the food security of host communities.
Before the early signs of recovery, proper preparation is essential. While the question of under what conditions would Ethiopia allow any visitors into the country, is yet critical and unclear, how can we be proactive in the way we address this crisis to quickly stimulate Ethiopia’s tourism is vital. Post-COVID-19 changes are inevitable, Ethiopia’s tourism sector needs to adapt yet again to meet any demand changes, and tourism intermediaries’ restructure, among others. Coping with these changes requires both inward actions (reviewing existing tourism sector’s governance, marketing, strategies, risk management strategies, etc.) and outward-looking actions (new market research, new target market, etc.) to adapt the new tourism business landscape.
Destination management rethinking: Ethiopia’s tourism is highly dependent on the out-ward-oriented development strategy (international tourism) in search of generating highly needed foreign exchange. The structure of the international tourism system is characterized by the weak position of Ethiopia as a host destination, merely left the country as a dependent of the developed countries based tour operators and visitors. Meaning, international tourism is at the mercy of the international tour operators. Moreover, these international companies are also significantly hatted by pandemics. Inward looking development policies that also incorporate domestic tourism and local ownership need to be materialized to solve such developmental problems.
Recovery of international tourism may lag: It is important to recognize that Ethiopia’s tourism sector recovery from COVID-19’s effects may lag behind as fear and paranoia of developing destinations may dictate travel patterns of international tourists.
Domestic and regional tourism as a quick recovery strategy: The fact that Ethiopia’s prime tourism generating countries such as the USA, UK, China, Italy, Spain and France were all hit hard by the pandemic, revisiting existing marketing strategies is of paramount importance. One of the pathways towards achieving both a short and long-term vision of sustainable development is gearing the focus to domestic and regional tourism, business and ‘visit friends and relatives’ tourism. To this effect, creating win-win collaborations with neighbouring countries and devising new marketing strategies to reach the diaspora segment should be well thought out.
Documentation and communication: COVID-19 pandemic effects on tourism needs to be well documented and communicated to better serve the direction of the ‘new normal’ internal tourism. Equally important is monitoring the situation to see what the longer-term implications will bring back to the sector. Making all stakeholders aware of the progress and the shift in tourism sector is of paramount importance.
Finally, we are indeed in an unprecedented times. However, despite the mounting challenges with the right tourism recovery strategy, proper plans and smart marketing strategies, the Ethiopian tourism sector can succeed in the post-COVID-19 tourism landscape. If we want to prepare Ethiopia’s tourism for what is ahead, all stakeholders need to get a handle now on how different things might be in tourism specific operating environments in a few short months.

Dr. Gebeyaw Ambelu Degarege is currently a Lecturer of Tourism and Development in the Department of Tourism, Sport and Society, Lincoln University, New Zealand. Gebeyaw’s current research interests lie in the wider field of tourism and sustainable development.
The opinions in this article are entirely his own.