Ethiopia's tourism industry is regularly snubbed for the lack of promotion, adequate infrastructure, human capital and investment. Rarely, however, is the harm inflicted by the lack of modern bathroom facilities mentioned. There is only so much that stately accommodations can achieve by themselves if they are not met with adequate restrooms, writes Ambessaw Assegued.
It is not only the tourists but also the public that is affected by the lack of restroom facilities. A case in point is the newly constructed Federal Court House at Shola, in Addis Abeba, which has a public bathroom in name only, for the toilet is an open-air corner of a stone wall in the back of the building.
On a recent afternoon, a man approaches a guard who was standing near this open-air bathroom and asks, “So, where is the bathroom?”
The guard points her hand sideways towards the corner without looking up.
“No. I mean the restroom. Where is the public restroom?” he repeats.
“Right there,” she points her hand again to the corner of a stone wall from where a nascent, repugnant and foul smell is drifting up and spreading. “Just go and use that area over there.”
The area where she points to is a defiled corner of the stone wall, where there is a large wet mound of human defecation and urine brimming with a foul odour.
“They didn’t provide a public facility when they built the building. This is what everybody uses. It is their fault, you know,” the guard says almost apologetically.
“Are there any restrooms in the building?”
“Yes. They have ceramic-tiled lavatories in the offices, but the toilets don’t work properly. They didn’t put the plumbing correctly.”
“How old is the building?” he asks.
“It is only four years old,” she replies, and then she walks away as if to indicate that it is someone else’s problem.
Someone may be criticised for using a wall, a stairwell, or an alley surreptitiously when there are no toilet facilities available. But to sanction a corner of a government building, a federal courthouse no less, as a public bathroom?
If the intent of those who built and manage the building is to make the whole edifice dysfunctional, they have succeeded very well. But something needs to be done!
While the public may be inured to the lack of proper toilet facilities, our tourists will be less forgiving. In fact, it will not be far from the truth to say, pun intended, the fate of Ethiopian tourism industry lies in the toilet.
“Ethiopia is the hot new place in Africa,” declared a CNN article of August 2017 issue, citing the myriad of tourist attractions from medieval castles in Gonder, to the spectacular landscapes of the Omo Valley.
The caveat, the “missing ingredient,” as the article puts it, is the lack of tourist infrastructures. It is doubtful, though, that boutique hotels with stately English manor names, or exquisite lodges built atop Gheralta Mountain will attract more tourists into Ethiopia. It is the absence of modern, clean and functional bathrooms that needs to be tackled before tourists can flock in droves into this extraordinary country.
An ordinary tourist can go to sleep in any bed if the sheets are fresh, and the bed is clear of bugs. It will help if the floors are clean, the furnishings are all in one piece, and the walls are free of grime. But an unvented foul-smelling room with a leaky toilet can unnerve even a hardened backpacker accustomed to the backwaters of travelling.
When the scent of a vile stench greets a visitor in the lobby of a luxury hotel, all the other amenities of the establishment recede into the background, and only the unpleasant odour persists as the focal point of the experience.
To the modern traveller, bathrooms are as important, if not more, as the bedrooms of a hotel. The average tourist comes from places where the washrooms are well designed, properly vented, correctly plumbed, regularly maintained and cleaned. Unfortunately, such amenities are devoutly to be wished, but rarely to be met in Ethiopia.
The truth is the ability to construct and maintain appropriately plumbed bathrooms have evaded Ethiopians since the Italian defeat of 1941. Our urban planners should have preserved the old Italian neighbourhoods of Kazanchis, Popolare, Cambolojo and Piazza from demolition just to show present-day builders how to assemble pipes and arrange the fixtures in a bathroom correctly.
The most likely cause, however, for all the smelly and malfunctioning bathrooms evident throughout the country is the lack of understanding of the very high value that modern living attaches to clean and functional restrooms.
“Clean and functioning bathrooms are the cornerstone of civilisation,” declared Xi Jinping in 2015 launching the “toilet revolution” in China.
Without touching upon the merits of Xi’s lofty toilet revolutions, how can the modern hotels and public buildings that spring up everywhere around the country meet the challenge of providing clean and adequately functioning bathrooms?
Countless luxury hotels across Ethiopia show off custom-designed interiors, symphonies of fabrics with many tones and textures, and stunning exteriors that rival the Waldorf Astoria in Phoenix, Arizona. Yet their bathrooms remain ill-designed, malodorous, and uncomfortable dens that are out of place in this modern era.
One remedy is to get owners, designers, developers, builders, contractors, and managers to think of bathrooms as the foundational and essential component of a building. As for accommodating tourists, almost all visitors expect upgraded bathrooms with ample rooms, properly installed plumbing, suitable finishes, and spotlessly clean fixtures.
While stunning natural landscapes, ancient cultures, and a long history may draw many tourists, the lack of modern bathroom facilities remains a significant deterrent and handicap for the industry. In a world linked by instant communications and social media, reports of stench-filled rooms and substandard restrooms are easily transmitted to thousands of people. Once spread, mitigating those negative reports is an unattainable task. It is so much easier to fix the toilets.
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