Lakeside City Surmounts Africa’s Tourism Crisis

by Zelalem

Photo: David Njagi

Bahir Dar, Ethiopia — The evening calm is broken by a roll of drums at a social joint near the Rahnile Hotel. Crowds stream through the streets to answer the call of the rhythm, pulled by the promise of a cultural ballet.

Inside a weather-beaten pub, patrons swig mouthfuls of local brew, seated on neat rows of benches. A group of tourists, who appear to be from Europe, enthusiastically toast a youthful trio’s well-practiced thoracic thrusts and floor acrobatics. Jazzy music and performances that link traditional Amharic melodies and movement in modern realizations have surged in popularity across Ethiopia, and Bahir Dar is no exception.

Where this city – and this country – intend to be exceptional is in keeping – and even expanding – the tourism that fuels its economy.

Across Africa, tourism – and the vital revenues it produces – is down, partly due to fears of Ebola, even in traditional tourist magnets in east and southern Africa, 3500 miles and more from the nearest case of the disease.

No one could have predicted the Ebola shock to Africa’s economies or to the cities where most tourists land. A World Bank report last year on the region’s tourism potential predicted continuing rapid growth – despite concerns about security and terrorism threats in some areas – citing outsize examples like Mozambique, where tourist arrivals grew 284 per cent in five years. The report noted that tourism is a job-intensive industry, producing more employment per money invested than either agriculture or mining. The Bank said Africa was the only region where tourism grew during the global recession.

No longer. Zimbabwe’s tourism agency reported in October that the country had lost about $6 million in revenues due to trip cancellations. A month earlier, the trade minister of Namibia told AllAfrica that scheduled visits by trade missions from Brazil and Japan had been cancelled because of Ebola fears. Safari companies in Kenya and other parts of east Africa report as much as a 70 per cent decline in bookings.

Bahir Dar, along with other cities in Ethiopia, hopes to escape that fate through an aggressive international effort. The flagship Ethiopian Airlines is one of the world’s highest ranked carriers, and it is promoting visits to Ethiopia heavily, as are the country’s tourism officials. Their campaign may be assisted by the fact that many international tourists don’t think of Ethiopia as African, even though it is the home of the Organization of African Unity and of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

“There is a lot of fun in Bahir Dar,” reckons Thomas Döhler, a scholar at the University of Utretch in the Netherlands. “The quiet of the city makes it a place of choice to meet.”

Like many who are taken by the beauty of the city, Döhler is here to attend the Leishmaniasis East Africa Platform (LEAP), a scientific conference. ‘Conference tourism’ is a growth area that city officials are determined to develop.

The city, whose name is known by locals to mean ‘lake shore’, is on the southern flank of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River. In both the lake and the river, islands host ancient churches and monasteries dating from as early as the 14th century. The rich history includes a legend that the island of Tana Kurkos was the hiding place of the Ark of the Covenant for decades after a period of turbulence in Jerusalem.

Even with a packed schedule which includes networking with other scientists attending the LEAP consultation, Döhler is convinced that visits to attractions such as the Blue Nile Falls, or a boat ride through Lake Tana, are not to be missed.

Andualem Sisay, a journalist who works for several international media organizations from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, some 578 kilometers northwest of Bahir Dar, agrees. He also launched a news website and has decided that an occasional tour to the lakeside city is a necessity to recharge his creative juices.

“I will be bringing my family here for vacation,” says the father of two. “The city’s lure is just impossible to resist.”

Today, he has joined a colleague, Elias Meseret, for a stroll along sunlit streets lined with towers of palm trees and long stretches of colorful flowers at their feet. The streets are some of the cleanest in Ethiopia, while traffic jams have never been a concern.

Despite its pastoral attractions and the bicycles that can seem its main means of transportation, Bahir Dar has been expanding. In 2003 it won the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Cities for Peace prize for addressing the challenges of urbanization.

That doesn’t mean there are no problems. As twilight sets in and families crowd the pavements, call girls emerge from the backstreets. They can be seen pitching their trade near hawking stands, where the vendors double as pimps.

“Sex work is a well-paying job for some of these teenagers, because most are illiterate,” explains Fruity, a girl working at one of the local night clubs. “This can go on the whole night because there is no crime or police harassment on the streets.”

As sunrise pushes the haggling off the streets, the money generated will remain awake and find its way into local banks like Oromia, Abbysinia, Nile International and Commercial Bank of Ethiopia.

Economists have criticized Ethiopia’s protectionism policy, which refuses to invite investments in sectors such as banking. To local entrepreneurs however, the stability of the Birr, the Ethiopian currency, has ensured buoyancy in such sectors as the tourism and hospitality industry.

Along the shores of Lake Tana, hotel buildings are springing up as property developers position themselves on the fringes of the city to prepare for the expected population boom. One of these is the Avanti Blue Nile Hotel, which has long enjoyed hosting a flow of tourists there.

However, its general manager, Sven Saint Calbre, says competition is peaking because 14 hotels opened shop this year, while 20 more are in the process of launching.

According to him, Bahir Dar was originally built and designed with the intention of making it the capital city of Ethiopia. While the weather is very attractive, he says, monasteries and the Blue Nile Falls have continued to feature as the favored attractions among tourists.

The city also has an airport of international standards which handles at least four daily direct flights linking Bahir Dar with Bole international airport in Addis Ababa.

“Tourists used to spend a maximum of three days here because accommodation was not enough,” explains Calbre. “Now they even stay for a week.”

The deputy head of the state’s culture and tourism office, Gebeyehu Tirusew, recently told the Ethiopian News Agency that 134,600 tourists had visited the city and the surrounding natural attractions over the past year, generating over U.S.$14 million in revenues.

Calbre’s hotel also has become one of the facilities hosting conferences. Among them is the Southern Sudan peace process, whose delegates say they will be stationed at hotel until a deal is reached.

“We have started the peace process at the Avanti Blue Nile Hotel and will continue to hold them here because this is a safe place for the negotiations to take place,” says Puot Kang’ Choi, the chairman of the Youth League of the SPLM – the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement.

That is a prospect that keeps managers like Calbre hopeful, except of course, for the occasional hiccup. In the two years he has been the manager here, getting supplies from Addis Ababa remains a challenge because of bad roads. For instance, he says it takes at least a day for items to reach Bahir Dar by truck.

Still, having qualified staff to provide international service, plus the hotel’s facilities, makes Calbre confident. “We have an advantage of other hotels here because we have a conference center, facilities, and rooms able to cater for local and international conferencing,” he says.

Other challenges include the poverty that is largely tucked away in the city’s outskirts, and the low levels of girls’ education, with schooling undermined by cultural beliefs. At the same time, visitors can find it difficult to communicate with locals here, because most people speak in the local language, Ahmaric.

Music and culture, though, need no translation. In the night club, revelers – residents and tourists alike – join in an energized crescendo of clapping hands as the three-man musician group picks up the pace. They are joined by another trio – young Ethiopian women, whose flowing black hair, colourful costumes, and high pitched singing, keeps even the shyest of patrons swaying to the music late into the night.

“There is strong belief in Ethiopian culture not only in Bahir Dar but in other regions as well,” explains Sisay, the journalist from the capital. The attraction of that historic culture to international travelers is an asset that Bahir Dar intends to preserve, as the city continues to grow and cope with challenges, new and old.

Reporting on African cities and their efforts to build resilience is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

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