As the value of the global tourism industry nudges towards the $1 trillion mark, and the number of international tourists approaches one billion visitors each year, most countries are competing hard for the tourist dollar. But few countries have the appeal of Ethiopia, a land of timeless splendours.
The annual number of international tourist arrivals in Ethiopia, although more than doubling in the last decade from the 150,000 recorded in 2001 is, in the opinion of a World Bank report, “by no means commensurate with the potential of the country’s attractions”.
Ethiopia’s main tourist destinations are located on the northern historic route that includes the historic sites of Aksum and Lalibela. The world-famous monolithic stelaes of Aksum mark the tombs of a ruling elite of a remarkable civilisation that held power in the region until around 300AD. The town, which is acknowledged as the cradle of Ethiopian culture, is where the Arc of the Covenant is said to reside, in a small chapel at the Church of St Mary of Zion. It is guarded by priests from the eyes of all comers, but reputed to be a pure gold container in which the stone tablets with the 10 Commandments are kept. Further south is the cluster of 11 majestic free standing and rock-hewn churches at Lalibela. Described as the “eighth wonder of the world”, they probably date from the 12th century, and local legend has it they were built by angels.
Aksum and Lalibela may be the main attractions of the Northern route, but Bahir Dar on the exquisite Lake Tana (the source of the Blue Nile), and Gondar with its magical castles – as well as Emperor Fasilades’ bath house, a focus of the local New Year celebrations, Timkat – are equally compelling destinations.
So too the Simien escarpments, a mountain range intersected by more than 100 deep gorges, that lies between Aksum, Gondar and Lalibela and is one of the 43 natural world heritage sites found in Ethiopia that are listed by Unesco. Here, to the delight of wildlife enthusiasts, are found three species that exist nowhere else in the world: the Walia ibex with its crescent-shaped horns; the Simien wolf; and the extremely rare gelada baboon.
Several emerging destinations in southern, western and eastern Ethiopia also provide a wide range of historic, cultural and natural attractions. To the east, close to the nearest airport at Dire Dawa (which, incidently, is also served by the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway, the only rail route in Ethiopia) is the ancient, walled Muslim city of Harar, home to 90 mosques and holy shrines and considered the fourth most sacred centre in the Islamic world after Mecca, the Medina and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
It is recorded that when the Prophet Muhammed fled to Medina, many other Muslims crossed the Red Sea to seek sanctuary in Ethiopia. One such group that made the crossing included the Prophet’s daughter, Ruqayya, and his future wife Habiba.
The slopes of the Chercher mountain range, just outside Harar, are said to grow the finest coffee in the world, the factor that probably drew Arthur Rimbaud, the rebellious 19th century French poet (who was, for a time, a coffee trader) to live in the city.
All Ethiopia’s principal destinations are served by the national airline, Ethiopian Airways, the oldest in Africa. Since December 2011, Ethiopian Airways has been a member of the Star Alliance network, along with fellow African carriers EgyptAir and South African Airways.
With an eight-strong new fleet of the Canadian company Bombardier’s Q400 aircraft, and five more on order, Ethiopian Airways provides an efficient, daily service to no fewer that 16 domestic destinations from Addis Ababa, and a growing number of regional airports especially in Arabia and the Gulf.
The aviation industry – the oldest in Africa (a plane first landed in Addis Ababa in 1929) – underpins Ethiopia’s tourism sector in enabling tourists to quickly travel around this vast country both in safety and style. The capital, Addis Ababa, is the country’s only international gateway and a major destination in its own right, a leading conference venue and, as home to the AU, African Parliament and the UN Economic Commission for Africa, Africa’s primary diplomatic centre.
Addis Ababa’s international airport at Bole serves as Ethiopian Airways’ hub. The airport opened one of Africa’s most impressive and modern terminals in 2003, and matching that development, the city also boasts what is arguably one of Africa’s most luxurious hotels, the Addis Sheraton.
But the capital also has many budget options, including the venerable Itegue Taitu, the oldest hotel in Ethiopia and now in private hands. A beautiful old building, built by Queen Taitu in 1898, that stands high on the Piazza (the old European district) overlooking the rest of the city, it is highly favoured by tourists and local visitors to the capital alike.
In fact, Addis Ababa has a number of tourist attractions. Of the many churches, perhaps the most splendid are the Trinity Cathedral, which serves as a convenient central city landmark, and St George’s Cathedral. Both boast richly decorated interiors and have guides on hand to help tourists make the most of their visits.
For a more secular attraction, you might visit Africa Hall, where can be viewed a large mural with portraits of all the African leaders who attended the opening ceremony of the Organisation of African Unity, forerunner of the African Union.
The capital also has some wonderful restaurants, serving not only Ethiopian traditional dishes but a variety of international delicacies, not least the bakers’, who make tempting cakes and confectionery. The traditional meal of injera, a large disc of springy, fermented bread made with a local variant of wheat, serves at the staple foodstuff. On this bread that is invariably eaten at a round, traditional, woven reed table, are served various wots of meats, pulses and vegetables. The injera is torn, and eaten along with the wots with the right hand, in a communal manner. A traditional coffee ceremony usually follows.
However, it has to be said that outside of the capital there are few accommodation or dining options that would achieve more than a three-star rating. Most of the major towns and cities have a state-owned hotel, part of the Ghion Group (which has long been tipped for privatisation). These are generally the best choice – usually clean and comfortable, but offering little in the way of the services that an international tourist would expect.
But if it is six-star luxury in the capital that is required, the Addis Sheraton fits the bill.