Anxious Days as Ethiopia Pins Hope on Tourism

Keder Yesehak has been running his own business selling cultural religious souvenirs for the past three decades. His shop is located beside a line of similar shops along Nigeria Street. Keder’s shop stocks locally made merchandise, from cultural clothes to wooden sculptures and traditional musical instruments. Although he has gone through many highs and lows during his time in the business, this year’s market has been unique because buyers, and especially tourists, have been at a record low.

“We really started to feel it starting in September, 2016,” said Keder. “Big holidays like Mesqel and Timqet usually attract many buyers but it didn’t happen this year.”

Along with the eruption of political turmoil in some parts of the country, the tourism sector in general was affected. Following the conflict in Gondar City, embassies that had already issued travel restrictions to their citizens for parts of Oromia regional state widened their limits.

Prior to the implementation of the travel alerts focused on Gondar, the hospitality sector was already feeling the shock due to similar restrictions in Oromia regional state. There was visible damage to some hotels and public buses in the city. Many have suffered looting, and been left with an uncertain future.

A few months ago hotels based in Addis Abeba appealed to the Prime Minister’s Office, asking for support and assistance from the government. Some of the hotels were unable to pay back their bank loans because of the drastic drop in guest numbers. Some hotel owners, who spoke with Fortune in November, 2016 said that they got close to 1,200 cancellations in the period from August to October, 2016 and lost close to five million birr in revenue.

The same impact has been affecting the cultural souvenir market.

Fortune met Keder during the week after Timqet. He was busy repairing a stringed cultural music instrument called masinqo.

The instrument had been sitting in the shop for almost eight months, which would not normally be the case, according to Keder.

“If this was a year and a half ago, it would have been snapped up quickly,” he said. “This slowdown isn’t just affecting me, it is affecting the whole industry.”

“These weeks are supposed to be busy,” said Mekdelawit Assemamaw, a shopkeeper with a similar shop as Keder’s. “During the weeks of the Timket celebration we were optimistic that people would come. But we only sold two cultural dresses.”

Lidya Keder, another shop owner, has been experiencing the same thing. Lidya has been working in her shop for the past four years.

The shop, which was stocked with very bright and colourful souvenirs, had no customers. During the almost a half hour that Lidya spoke with Fortune, there wasn’t a single customer.

“If by chance buyers came to our shops, it’s mostly to buy simple materials like scarves, which cost 100 Br to 150 Br,” said Lidya. “We used to sell up to five cultural dresses a week, but now we don’t sell even half of that.”

The shop owners also claim that the fact that similar souvenir shops in hotels are deterring tourists from visiting such places.

The trend is the same all around the city. Shops that would normally do well around the peak of tourist season and holidays are starting to feel the pinch of the business downturn.

Amist Kilo is an area of town known for being the location of the science and technology faculty of Addis Ababa University and the National Museum. Along the side street, souvenir shops stand waiting to receive customers. Given their proximity to Ethiopian orthodox churches, they are focused on the sale of religious materials. They sell things like metal and wooden crosses, umbrellas and religious books and clothes which are usually worn by priests and deacons. There is usually a steady flow of tourist business in the region.

Dawit Tessefa is one of the shop owners. His store is located just off King George IV Street. He has been working there for the past three years. Hoping for a better market, he ordered 20 embellished umbrellas, which are usually used for religious services, and six metal crosses. The umbrellas are modified and embellished from normal umbrellas in Addis Abeba. The crosses are ordered from Axum, in Tigray regional state.

The crosses cost from 600 Br to 1,800 Br, based on their size and umbrellas range between 150 Br to 300 Br.

“I am just hoping people will come,” said Dawit. “So far no one has come to my shop.”

“There are more locals coming into the shop nowadays,” Tigist Keneni, another shop owner told Fortune. ”There aren’t very many tourists around.”

Despite such anecdotal evidences of the decline of components in the tourism sector, during the 2015/2016 fiscal year, more than 910,000 tourists were said to visit the country – 17.6pc higher than the preceding fiscal year.

Ethiopia’s tourism industry has created jobs for more than 979,000 people, according to the latest study by the World Travel and Tourism Council. Compared to the contribution of tourism to the global economy, 9.1pc of GDP, Ethiopia’s 10pc constitutes a larger slice. The contribution of the sector to Ethiopia’s economy is also far greater than the two major export items designated as strategic, coffee and leather, whose contribution stands at 3.2pc and less than one percent, respectively.

Just a few weeks ago Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegne briefed the media that the unrest brought no significant impact on the overall economy. The tourism sector also registered last year around 280,000 tourists have visited the country so far.

Ethiopia hopes tourism would continue to be a major engine of its growth, and rebranded itself last year as “Land of Origins.”






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