Although holidays have common features, they each still have unique traditions and rituals that give them a character of their own. Such characteristics define them in a way that leaves a permanent impression in the minds of the society. In Ethiopia, each holiday is associated with a particular character, Easter marks the end of fasting while New year brings the sunny season, and Mesqel is known for journeys made internationally and domestically. Such a holiday also paves the way for businesses that flourish with the voyages people take for the celebration, reports
Nega Mulugeta, 50 and father of five, engages in the business of import and sale of clothes at his shop located in Merkato. Despite his busy and hectic work environment, he is habituated to go back to his roots and celebrate the holiday of Mesqel in Guraghe zone in the Southern Nations, Nationalities & Peoples’ Regional State (SNNPR).
Every year in September, Nega and his family set out on the five-hour journey that takes them to his hometown. They usually spends a total of five days.
“We start our preparations a week before the holiday; buying gifts especially cultural clothes for our family there, toys for the kids and different household items,” said Nega.
Renting a car is next on their list. For this year’s journey, Nega paid 20,000 Br for the two-way trip including fuel expense.
The five-day Mesqel festival at Nega’s family house begins with the slaughtering goats for his parents and his family’s neighbours at the cost of 7,000 Br. Even though he goes to his family’s house, he needs accommodation for his family of seven. This costs him up to 17,000 Br for five days.
The next day the family celebrates Demera, a bonfire ceremony to mark the historical finding of the true cross on September 26. The celebration follows with traditional feasts, and social gatherings, and visits to relatives.
For all this, the family budgets 50,000 Br annually.
Not only Nega but also several residents of Addis Abeba from different lines of business and income status, go back home for Mesqel as local tourists. They travel hundreds of kilometres to spend the holiday with their loved ones.
Ayele Mekonnen, a 25-year-old daily labourer, left his hometown of Wolkite eight years ago. Ever since he has been travelling there every year to celebrate the holiday.
Ayele’s income status does not allow him to rent a vehicle by himself, so he takes a minibus with 11 individuals who share the same journey with him, paying a total of 12,000 Br, sharing the cost with his friends.
Ayele also started preparations for the travel a week before by searching partners to travel with him. The process was followed by buying clothes and school materials for his siblings and cousins.
“It does put a strain on my savings, but I do it every year anyway” he stated.
As he stays in his family home, his spending is limited to covering expenses for the goat or sheep to be slaughtered during the holiday, unlike Nega who spends for accommodation too.
“Along with my transportation fee, my budget is 10,000 Br to cover my entire trip,” Ayele told Fortune.
Although local tourists such as Nega and Ayele have continued to travel each year especially during Mesqel, their contribution to the tourism industry is insignificant.
According to data from the Ministry of Culture & Tourism (MoCT), the tourism industry in Ethiopia is largely dominated by American, Chinese and Nigerian tourists.
These international travellers have different purposes to visit the country, one of them being attending Mesqel celebrations by travelling thousands of miles from their homes.
Targeting both local and international visitors who aspire to attend such celebrations which take place in different parts of the country, many travel and tour companies await them with different packages.
Karibu Ethiopia Tours is one of those that prepared packages for Mesqel. The travel agency, which has been in operation for the past eight years, has served 18 tourists from Europe and South America with its package for Mesqel festivity.
Despite local tourist which prefer to travel to the southern and northern parts of the country, non-Ethiopians desire to celebrate the festivity in Addis, according to Fekadu Mekuria, a tour operator at Karibu.
For Mesqel, Karibu prepared a 14 days and 13 nights tour package for the 18 tourists. The package itinerary started on September 25th and incorporated Demera celebrations followed by travel to the southern parts of the country. The tourists will visit Langano, Arbaminch, Lake Chamo, Konso village, Omo Valley, Mursi tribal village and Hamer.
Veronica Chavez, the Mexican tourist amongst the 18 visitors served by Karibu, enjoyed the trip. Having travel experience in more than 30 countries, her journey was breathtaking.
The mother of four, Chavez, invested 3,000 dollars for her Mesqel trip and Chavez believes that the service was worth the money.
Karibu is one of the 606 tour and travel agencies currently operating in Ethiopia, and it is not the only one that planned packages for Mesqel. Ethiopian Rift Valley Safaris, (ERVS), which has been in the tour business for more than three decades, has also taken its share of tourists.
“Our company specifically focuses on upmarket clients mostly from America,” said Dawit Yehwalshet, a tour specialist at ERVS, and this year it served seven tourists from the US in collaboration with its longtime American based tour operator partner, Wilderness Travel.
ERVS booked rooms at Sheraton Addis Hotel and set the tourists out on a travel package to tourist destinations in the southern and northern parts including, Axum, Lalibela, Gonder, and Bahirdar.
Not all tourists that visit the capital, northern or southern parts of the country are, however, taking tour operators. Some like Roland Joe and his wife Raisa Joe who live in St. Maarten, took the tour on their own.
The couple had been in Ethiopia last year and visited Shashmene, Hawassa, Axum and Lalibela, spending 5,000 dollars.
“This is our first time to see Mesqel celebrations,” Roland told Fortune.
Mesqel kicks off in the peak season of Ethiopian tourism followed by Ethiopian Christmas (Gena) and Timket festivities. This is supported by data from the MoCT, which identifies October, November and December as peak seasons where tourist flow increases by 23pc.
Despite such assertion, the tourism flow in the country has shown a 2.5pc decline during the recently ended fiscal year. About 890,000 visitors from around the world visited the country. And regardless of this, MoCT plans on accommodating 1.2 million tourists and collecting 4.5 billion dollars during the current fiscal year.
In addition to Addis where the Demera festivity is the biggest tourist attraction, most areas of SNNPR along with Adigrat and Meqelle, in the Tigray Regional State also receive the large number of domestic travellers for Mesqel.
Adigrat inaugurated a 21m long cross tower in 2016. To attract more tourists for Mesqel celebration, the town organizes different sports competitions, religious and cultural events held for three days.
Tour operators, hotels and car rentals nonetheless are not the only businesses benefiting from the celebrations. Photographers like Yemane Berhane, who has been in the business for the past 11 years, gain from such festivities.
He charges 30 Br a picture and submits instant printouts.
Yemane asserts that on casual weeks, he rarely gets work and even during weekends, he doesn’t take more than 20 pictures. However, in the festivities held at Mesqel square, on September 26, 2017, he managed to take 25 pictures in one afternoon.
“Even though it is half of what I took last year, it is still far higher than the photos I take on casual days,” he stated.
Due to these unique features, the government made efforts to get the festivity registered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
UNESCO has inscribed as a commemoration feast for the finding of the True Holy Cross of Christ on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Also, the government is making an effort to attract more tourists for this festival.
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