With nine Unesco world heritage sites and an archeological history that goes back to the first humans, Ethiopia’s ancient treasures – along with its national parks and mountain ranges – have been drawing a growing number of tourists, after years of being more strongly associated by the west with famine.
But its flourishing – and vital – tourist industry faces collapse this month, after violent anti-government protests across the country led the Ethiopian government to declare a six-month state of emergency. The US and UK are both warning citizens against all but essential travel there.
Tour operators Saga, Cox & Kings and Kuoni are among those cancelling trips to the country, citing Foreign Office (FCO) advice to avoid the Amhara and Oromia regions, which have seen growing unrest, mass arrests and police killings of protesters.
“The state of emergency and FCO travel advisory have taken a heavy toll on bookings for the next six months,” said Nigel Nicoll of the African Travel and Tourism Association (Atta), who added that Ethiopia had been one of Africa’s fastest growing destinations.
In 2015, the European Council on Tourism and Trade named Ethiopia the world’s best tourist destination, and last week Lonely Planet ranked the country among the best to visit in 2017. This year, Ethiopia was set to surpass a million tourists for the first time (fewer than 200,000 people visited in 2004).
But Ethiopia’s main tourist sites are well away from the regions seeing the worst disruption, with local operators stressing that the risk to tourists is low.
“None of the tourist sites in Addis has been affected: our tours there are running normally,” said Eliza Richman of Go Addis Tours. “Our bookings for October were roughly the same as last year, but people are mostly booking tours at the last minute. We have very few advance bookings for November.”
Andinet Feleke, who runs Jacaranda Tours and is a board member of the Ethiopian Tour Operators Association, added: “Tourism has never stopped and significant number of visitors are having trips in all tourist destinations. We had a group on the dates when protests had escalated and none of them encountered a problem. I hope foreign governments will have a balanced approach and align their responsibility to protect their citizens with the impact their decision will have on the livelihood of millions here.”
While major tour operators will always defer to Foreign Office warnings, more intrepid travellers are not deterred, though the messages, even from within Ethiopia, are mixed.
“The lack of consistency is concerning,” said Shanny Hill of TDA Global Cycling, a Canadian company that has run tours including Ethiopia for 14 years and is plans to go ahead with a trip in February. “An expat acquaintance in Addis makes it seem dire (road closures, troops, limitations on travel – all unconfirmed), but an Ethiopian who we trust tells us everything is now fine. For a tour operator it has been hard to find reliable info.”
The hope is that the state of emergency will be short-lived, before long-term damage is done. “As long as the FCO’s advice remains in place, Atta strongly advises against travel to the areas concerned,” says Nicoll. “If tourists were involved in an incident, their travel insurance may well be invalid. But I am confident that as soon as peace is restored throughout the tourist regions, and the FCO lifts its travel advisory, tourism numbers will revive very quickly.”
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