A sector with vast, untapped potential, Ethiopia’s tourism industry is set to experience a huge metamorphosis as it builds its infrastructure, brand, and product offer in the coming years through both public and private efforts. Solomon Tadesse, CEO of the Ethiopian Tourism Organization, reveals the exceptionally positive outlook tourism has here, and its implications for the country, its people, and its investors alike.
What are your insights on the current momentum of Africa as a growing investment destination?
Africa is the last continent that anybody was interested to look into. Unfortunately, the Western world used to look at Africa as a country, not as a continent, and never recognized the diversity that exists here. Africa is so diverse in terms of culture, language, religion, many things. It is also so rich in landscape and resources. The diversity of our landscape, the diversity of our resources has never been tapped or has never been looked at as a potential investment opportunity for most Western countries.
I was out of Ethiopia for 42 years and lived in America; I know how the media functions over there. I think it blinded many potential businesses or even individuals from the Western countries as the media was telling just one story of Africa for a long period of time.
Today, Africa is rising with all its potential in terms of education, health and at the same time with its own resources. Africa is definitely in the right direction to capture its own potential in energy, meaning its development energy. With that I would say it’s wide open for business, but we still don’t see as many Western countries coming and investing in Africa.
Definitely, China is playing a very interesting role. China, as well as other Asian countries saw the potential and they jumped in. I think there is still more potential in Africa that investors can come and explore. There are so many areas that have not been tapped in terms of technology, in terms of development. The world is getting smaller and smaller and I think Africa is going to play a key role in further development of the global economy.
What is the impact of the infrastructure and power development we are now experiencing in Ethiopia in the tourism sector?
When we talk about infrastructure it’s not necessarily the bridges, roads, planes or rails. Of course, there are limitations, but at the same time we have overcome those to the point where tourists can come and go anywhere we want them to go. There are still a lot of tourist attraction places that we haven’t tapped or we haven’t discovered. We will do that.
Infrastructure does not necessarily mean building, but changing the mind-set of people. For a long period of time, people in Ethiopia have not been aware of the tourism potential and its effect on the country’s economy. Creating that awareness among people is partially creating that infrastructure.
Right now we are doing a lot of work. Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa next to Nigeria. We have to reach out to many Ethiopians to tell them that tourism is very important. Tourism is not necessarily being developed by just the government’s offices or by potential investors. It has to be developed by all Ethiopians.
Compared to other countries that have developed tourism, ours is way behind. We have to catch up very fast, explaining to the world that Ethiopia is not a country of one story. The work we need to do first is changing the mindset of people.
One story has been told to the rest of the world. People don’t know a lot about Ethiopia. Ethiopia is the land origins. It is the land on which human beings walked upright for the first time. It is the land that brought a gift to the whole world, the coffee that everybody enjoys every morning. It is the land with the source of the Blue Nile, where civilization started. These stories have not been told. It is a lot of work for us to do, telling the world about the real Ethiopia. This is Ethiopia, this is what we have contributed to the rest of the world in terms of civilization, in terms of history, in terms of culture and in terms of discovering coffee.
We are creating awareness within the country, within our own people, about the advantages of tourism for every Ethiopian. Every Ethiopian is responsible for making sure tourism succeeds in Ethiopia. It’s not only the government or private investors, but also a regular Ethiopian walking on the street. Every Ethiopian has the responsibility to welcome a tourist and make sure that tourist is taken care of. Most tourists are appreciating the fact that Ethiopians are the most hospitable people. This is not something we were trained to do. It comes naturally. We must capture that and use that to the best benefit.
We have a huge task in front of us in terms of rebuilding and developing our products and sales. We can’t say yet that our destinations are of world standard. We are working on this as a priority: first we clean up our house and then we invite guests. We are working on changing the mindset of the people as well as developing and maintaining the standard of our tourist destinations.
We want to make sure all our economic sectors are developing, be it tourism, mining or manufacturing. Our economic growth is a number one priority and it has to benefit our people. Number two: we want to make sure it is within our culture, within our various religious beliefs, that we are taking care of the Earth. In that regard, Ethiopia is aspiring to becoming a green economy.
Tourists are starting to come and respect our culture, our people, and enjoy the diversity. We are very much aware of protecting our environment, protecting our culture, customs and interests of our people. This is the basic principle of making people, whether Muslim, Christian or Judaist, the central beneficiaries. This is our country’s economic policy. I don’t want to destroy nature, people’s livelihoods and their traditions, just to get our numbers up in the tourism sector. We want to keep everything as it is and create a boutique tourism environment.
Technology is on our side. We’ll definitely see a major change in the coming years of GTP2. Our regional goal is bringing the number of tourists to over 2 million in the coming five years. In order to achieve that, we have come up with five pillars. Number one is capacity building, starting from changing the mind-set and learning new technologies. The value chain includes hotels, restaurants, tour guides, tour operators, regional offices, and ends with individual Ethiopians. The next pillar is destination development and destination management as a whole.
Ethiopia is the best place for many sports and adventure activities, such as paragliding, rock climbing, hot air ballooning and rafting. There are so many products to be developed and so much potential for both investors and visitors. We are putting together packages with very interesting incentives that will attract anyone who wants to come and put together a program of different products.
We are going to see a major transformation in tourism. Our wildlife has not been looked at in terms of a product. Our Natural Parks, such as Bale Mountain National Park, have 2,000 species of medicinal plants, out of which 1,500 are endemic to Ethiopia. And there are so many animal species. Ethiopia is also a paradise for birdwatchers.
What benefits and opportunities do you offer international investors in the tourism sector?
There is an incentive for anyone who is building hotels or lodges. Additionally, we are ready for high-level international cuisine. There are so many incentives from the government, such as tax-free capital goods as well as various grants and loans from banks. That is being worked on; especially we are working on the investment or the bank loan policy. We would like to encourage investors to build hotels and lodges around our destinations. We will be working with local governments to provide investors with land, help them access information, and support them in starting their business. Those types of incentives are already there.
85% of our tourists are coming through our airport and our job starts there, in terms of customs and security. We are working on simplifying the visa processing for both tourists and potential investors. We want to make sure that investors are here to stay. In this regard, the Ethiopian Tourism Organization is the face of the country. Custom policies, immigration policies and security policies all affect me. My organization was established in 2013 as an autonomous federal government organization run by a board. The board is a private-public partnership. Luckily, every member of the board is related to my interests. The members of my board include the Head of Customs, the Head of the Federal Police, the Hotel Association Chairman, the Head of Tour Operators Association, etc.
How would you describe the relations between the stakeholders of the public and the private sectors?
They have equal rights. At the moment the majority of members are from the government, but eventually we will have more private sector members. The job has to be done by the private sector. The government is working on the infrastructure and making sure all policies are clear. We are the catalysts who will make sure everything is done faster and in a more efficient way. Our office makes sure we create the awareness I was talking about earlier in terms of infrastructure. That involves creating awareness of government officials so that they are aware of the essence of the tourism sector and the benefits it brings.
One tourist creates nine jobs. Even if I accept that one tourist creates one job, that means 2.2 million jobs will be created, which is a big deal for a country like Ethiopia. We are looking at a major transformation. The job is very interesting and I am doing it out of passion. We have just created a new incredible brand of Ethiopia as a tourist destination and a new website is coming out and I can’t wait to see what people think of it.
The UK is one of the world’s top tourist sources, Ethiopia’s second inbound tourism market and fourth biggest spenders globally. How are you working in order to attract British tourists as well as investors?
The opportunities are immense in terms of hotels, lodges, tour operators, and much more. Mega-tour operators from England can set up their headquarters here. Our country is open. It is the fourth largest FDI destination in Africa. There is a huge potential to go in any direction, from car rentals to developing products, such as mountain biking, highland rally or car racing in the sand. The country has it all. All these activities are only a seven-hour flight away from London. The opportunities for Europeans are endless. This year our goal is to actively promote running. We have the Great Ethiopian Run every November. We have a mountain trail running which is attracting a lot of people from Spain, Italy and Asia. Additionally, over the last two years we have witnessed an increase in conference tourism. These are the two areas we are focusing on promoting this year. We will definitely move on to pushing other products too in the future.
There are so many different areas to explore. Take the education tourism in terms of diversity. Ethiopia has 80 different nationalities, with different languages and different cultures that peacefully coexist together. This is another area we want to look into. Ethiopia has so much potential and areas that have not been tapped.
Ethiopia having such a vast past and culture, what milestones would you say shaped the exciting present the country is enjoying?
I left Ethiopia when I was a young man, I didn’t know a lot about my country. I started appreciating it when I came back. I think the opening door is people themselves. I am not saying our people are superior but they are unique in a sense of tolerance, and consideration of society. People care for each other. It is not a question of being poor. It is about legacy: both Christianity and Islam shaped people here. If you look back in history, Ethiopia has never been an aggressor and it is the only independent county that has never been colonized or under any foreign management in Africa.
Having said that, people have always been modest about it. Ethiopia has never been an aggressor but definitely fought back in unison regardless of religion or nationality. Italians tried to invade with modern weapons. It is the people’s power that defeated them. This is what built the people and made them proud of who they are. Ethiopians are loving, welcoming and happy regardless of their condition. It is not money that makes you happy but the happiness within one’s soul.
Ethiopia’s current development is happening due to internal economic growth and internal consolidation. The government came up with a proper policy in order to organize the country, with every nationality being treated equally. After 1991, the new policy of bringing federal structure helped foster unity, equality and accepted diversity. That policy brought peace and stability to the country and better economic conditions. The government came up with its own economic policy without following anybody’s example and addressed all the separate issues, such as agricultural policy, health policy and education policy. In 1991, we only had 13% of young kids eligible for primary school. That’s all, only 13% attending nationally. Today, we have 97% registered attending schools. A lot has been achieved in the last 20 years.
Ethiopia was synonymous with famine. Today the reality has changed. If I plan to invest money into a country I will do a very serious due diligence and see what’s going on in that country in terms of security and policies. The internal strength of the country is very important and this is what makes Ethiopia attractive to investors.
Which concepts would you like potential investors and potential tourists to associate with Ethiopia?
There are two different interests there. For tourists, Ethiopia is definitely a peaceful country. We have a people-oriented service, which means that humanity is well respected. Tourists feel at home in Ethiopia. Ethiopians are living in the moment regardless of how much wealth they have. They are happy and kind. Besides history and culture, this attitude and way of living is a big attraction in Ethiopia.
For a potential investor, the return of investment is incredible in many ways. Cost of living is not as expensive as in Europe, especially London. Utilities and energy are cheaper and the cost of production is lower and that is very attractive for any business. Today, we have 37 government universities and many other private universities. 65% of the Ethiopian population is under 30. We have a young human power – the workforce is ready. At the same time, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa and that means we have local consumption, our middle class is being built and they will constitute future buyers. Products can be exported, but can also be used by the locals. There is instant growth and instant return on investment.
Government policy is accommodating and favorable for potential investors. Ethiopia is a getaway to Africa. There are 1 billion people that can be reached from Ethiopia thanks to our Ethiopian Airlines, not only passenger flights but cargo. Fresh cut flowers are flying to Holland every day and meats are being delivered to all the Middle Eastern countries. Even though we are a landlocked country, the sky is open and limitless. Besides that, the weather is always good.
You have been living abroad for many years and now returned to head the Ethiopian Tourism Organization from its beginning. What would you like to leave behind once you leave office?
The legacy I want to leave is definitely this new organization. First of all, it was an honor and a privilege to be asked to lead this organization as it was created. I had to start it from ground zero and there was no precedent before that. I want this organization to have the most advanced, current system that will be systematically and continuously improving day after day. I hope this organization will be supporting Ethiopia, if not the entire African continent. This will be a modern organization with advanced technology at everyone’s fingertips. That is the organization I want to leave behind. I want to create this organization and leave it for the coming generations who can keep on improving it. If the organization is run properly, it will achieve its ultimate outcome. Our destinations will be on the world-class level. The ultimate aim is to bring Ethiopia to the rest of the world, to everyone’s kitchen.