The economic liberalisation during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I was what brought tourism to the fore. The Emperor gave the responsibility of establishing this new industry to the appointee with little experience. However, this did not forbid Habte-Selassie Taffesse from trying to overhaul the system.
Habte-Selassie started by introducing duty-free shops with a capital he secured from his connections. He used the money to invent tourism in Ethiopia, doing more for the Ethiopian Tourism Organisation (ETO) than anyone else. He was a tour guide, driver, marketing agent, photographer, designer and much more.
These efforts did not disappear into the sky. The duty-free shops expanded to successfully grasp the attentions of the world. Newsweek magazine featured it in a full-page article as one of the world’s largest duty-free enterprises. This success story was not the limit for Habte-Selassie. He was restlessly inventing ideas to make the nation a tourist destination, although the hyper-conservative Ethiopian society of the time wrongly believed that advertising sights was akin to showing off. And that it sponsored spies who conspired against their own country.
While trying to promote the nation, he focused on Ethiopia’s unique calendar, which has thirteen months. Even though there is a rainy season, the sun still finds time to shine every single month of the year. This anomaly impressed Habte-Selassie. He coined the term ‘Thirteen months of sunshine’ and used it as a slogan for the country’s tourism industry. Posters, reading “Land of 13 Months of Sunshine”, and photos taken by him, publicised the nation’s untapped sights to the globe.
He had a challenging childhood. World War II was behind little Habte-Selassie’s plight, who was born two decades before the war in 1927, in Addis Abeba. His biological parents gave him to a Russian family when his father was assigned to the countryside, making his first language Russian. A few years later, his adoptive parents gave him to their daughter, who was married to a Greek man.
In fear of an Italian invasion, Habte-Selassie, with his new family, went to Greece. In the capital city of Athens, he began his primary education and studied the Greek language. Even though the family tried to run away, they ended up under fascist rule while German-Italian forces occupied Greece. When the war ended, Habte-Selassie was able to reunite with his biological parents through the International Red Cross.
He came back to Ethiopia and studied Amharic at Teferi Mekonnen School for one year. Because his father, Taffesse Habte-Michael (who was a Fitawrari, or Commander of the Vanguard), was assigned as the Ethiopian Ambassador to Egypt, Alexandria became Habte-Selassie’s new home. During his stay there, he added English, Spanish and French to his library of languages, before leaving for the United States, to study Government & International Relations at Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
After getting his B.A. degree, he returned home to fill the scarcity of educated Ethiopians in the workforce at that time. The first job offered to him was in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Polyglottism was the reason behind the appointment.
Nevertheless, after the Emperor learned of the importance of tourism during the inaugural flight of Ethiopian Airlines to Germany, Habte-Selassie was assigned to establish an organisation.
This decision intertwined Habte-Selassie and tourism once and for all. As he once told Fortune, “Every obstacle is to my advantage.” He turned the assignment given to him, with little budget and staff, into a successful organisation.
His creativity and hard work in his post made him vital to many other issues of the nation. He was involved in Ethiopian Airlines and Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce activities; he was part of the initiation and formation of regional organisations such as the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). He represented the nation on the podium of the world in many major cities.
These outstanding deeds did not spare him from being jailed when the military junta took power after Emperor Haile Selassie. Miraculously, he survived the Grand Palace massacre, which took the lives of 60 high-level officials in the imperial circle.
Habte-Selassie spent more than eight years in prison. As exile deprived him of the bond with his biological parents, imprisonment estranged him from his three children. Maybe it is one of the things that brought sorrow to this accomplished and grateful man. His wife, Qestela Mesfin, the daughter of Ras Mesfin Seleshi, divorced him while he was in prison.
He used to serve inmates as a barber and as the head of cell sanitation even though he had to fend off xenophobic prejudice (because of his difficulty in speaking Amharic fluently).
When President Mengistu Haile-Mariam (Col.) set him free, after claiming he did not know why Habte-Selassie was in jail, he was assigned to the job he was born to do – tourism.
At that point, the nation had a shortage of foreign currency. Habte-Selassie’s role was to draw currency from tourist attractions. He suspected his freedom was secured because Fisseha Geda (Major), who became his immediate boss, and worked with him amicably, had demanded his release.
It is complicated to spot when a man who burned the candle at both ends retired. He was rushed and engaged in many projects. He has been serving the nation under the current government on a contract basis.
He was still creative and advising people on how to effectively use business and tourism opportunities. He believed only tourism would eradicate poverty from Ethiopia. He was designing and selling high-quality neckties and scarves in the last chapter of his life. Hosting big coffee carnivals in Ethiopia was one of the plans circulating in his mind. For him, there was no eligible country other than Ethiopia to invite tourists to drink coffee and smell the aroma.
On August 8, 2017, Ethiopia lost this giant because of a stroke. He was thankful for the life he had spent on Earth. He received much recognition for his contribution to the homeland. Most of all, he was named “the Father of Ethiopian Tourism” by the Ministry of Culture & Tourism in February 2011. Even though it was not sufficient, the media coverage he got helped him become acquainted with the new generation. He did not stop lobbying for the untapped potential of tourism in Ethiopia.
The nation has lost a great photographer and tourism dealer. His designs, like ‘The Historic Route’, need a gifted marketing thinker to come up with. The tour package crafted by him will give a chance to visitors to see the sources of the Nile, Lake Tana, Gonder, Lalibela and Axum in a single trip.
The pioneer of tourism in Ethiopia will be buried at the Holy Trinity Cathedral Church, on Sunday at 11:00 am. Habte-Selassie Taffesse is survived by two sons and a daughter.