Ethiopia has made a bold bet on the tourism sector. It wants to triple the number of foreign visitors coming in each year to more than 2.5 million by 2020. This will make tourism a central pillar of its economy.
As commendable as Ethiopia’s ambitious plan is, there is some understandable concern about its feasibility. This is not to say that optimism is lacking. There is some optimism; but the kind of cautious optimism that closely borders on skepticism. This is because Ethiopia neither has the pristine beaches nor safari trails that some of its more tourism oriented neighbors such as Kenya and Tanzania have.
Ethiopia is, however, not formulating its assessment of its future in tourism on the basis of the attractions it has relative to its neighbors. Rather, its bright outlook on the future of tourism is informed by the progress that it has witnessed in the past few years.
Despite the apparent lack of standard tourism attractions such as beaches and safari trails, Ethiopia’s tourism sector has nonetheless recorded tremendous growth in the past few years. Visitor numbers have increased by at least 10 percent annually for the past decade, says Amin Abdulkadir, the Culture and Tourism minister. More than 750,000 tourists came during fiscal year 2014/2015, generating $2.9 billion for the economy, he added. “There is a lot of demand in terms of bookings and investment plans. Our target is to receive more than 2.5 million in five years’ time,” Abdulkadir told Reuters in an interview.
What Ethiopia lacks in terms of beaches and safari trails, it more than makes up for in its steep immersion in an imperial past that is steeped in the BC timeline. That is, Ethiopia has been on the radar of historians for more than 2000 years, both as an imperial state in recent and ancient times. It has a rightful and sure place alongside Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient Israel and Ancient Egypt.
One thing that history demonstrates quite persuasively is that imperial states, past of present, never go away. Their history and heritage has always served as an irreplaceable marker of humanity’s march towards a common destiny. Packaged in the right way, Ethiopia’s history can serve as a great tourist attraction and bring in many tourists, particularly in this day and age when more people around the world are educated and in search of knowledge.
Ethiopia has a rich history, including centuries’ old Churches curved out of rock
This notwithstanding, Ethiopia’s needs more than just a rich history to reel in tourists. A rich history is not always a guarantee that tourists will come pouring in. This is abundantly evident in Greece, where, even after Athens hosted the 2004 Olympics (an international sporting event wholly inspired by Greece’s own rich history), tourists failed to give the country much attention thereafter. Tourism numbers have not increased ever since and Greece still falls short of the rank that its rich heritage merits in the international tourism market.
Without a doubt, Ethiopia is aware of the task ahead and is mapping strategies on how to leverage on its history and other attractions and package them as an attractive proposition to tourists. Investors on their part seem confident that Ethiopia’s ambitions in the tourism sector will take off.
Hilton Worldwide Holdings signed a management deal recently to open its first hotel in Ethiopia in more than four decades, while sub-Saharan Africa’s first Marriott-branded serviced apartments have also been unveiled in the capital. This signals that investors are confident that the Ethiopian government will deliver on its bold pronouncements in the tourism sector.
Means to an end
For Ethiopia, the ambitious bid to grow tourist arrivals threefold in just five years is more than just an effort to grow foreign earnings from visitors—though this is an attractive objective that must be pursued.
What Ethiopia primarily wants from its tourism promotion efforts is to market itself and the economic opportunities within its borders. This way, it will increase foreign direct investment and improve its international image. Tourism is a means to an end for Ethiopia.
“This sector will generate foreign direct investment and foreign currency and create job opportunities, as well as contribute to image-building,” says Abdulkadir.
The emphasis on image building and attracting foreign investment, as well as the inextricable manner in which the two are linked, must be made. The world today is a global village in every aspect. Economies are inter-dependent and everyone needs each other.
Tourism to build positive global image necessary for investment
By focusing on tourism, Ethiopia is establishing basic friendship with countries which can later become economic partners. Tourism is typically the necessary precursor for the initiation and growth of diplomatic ties. It is only later after a ‘grace period of relations’, so to speak, that countries begin discussing how to shift long standing diplomatic relations to a more commercial footing.
Therefore by targeting tourism, Ethiopia will be able to pursue deeper commercial engagements with countries that bring in sizeable amounts of tourists. Positive press as a result of tourism will also goes a long way in building a strong international brand. That is, the attitudes that people have and what people say about Ethiopia will be positive.
What people say and the attitudes that people have about a country are instrumental in determining how much foreign investment a country enjoys. Tourism is a vital instrument of positively shaping these conversations. Countries with a strong brand generally have more sway in global trade and business.
Although it is hard to quantify the exact value of a good national brand, it is easy to see what positive commentary achieves in terms of economic benefits for a country. Japan today is renowned for its expertise in electronics, Germany for its cars and Italy for its high fashion. The economic value that these countries derive from their respective global images is immense to the extent that almost every TV set you see will be a Sony (Japanese), almost every young man’s dream car is a Mercedes Benz (German) and almost every young lass around the world wants a Gucci handbag (Italian).
In Africa, however, we tend to dwell on the more negative aspects of our countries. Hopefully, Ethiopia’s efforts in tourism and image building will change this and act as a cue for other African countries to take the same route.