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Ethiopia’s Nascent Luxury Tourism Market Starts to Take Hold

Luxury is a word that one would seldom use to describe the present condition of lodging in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is also among the weakest countries on the planet and also for many Western tourists its own picture is tied to the catastrophic 1980s famine.

Traveling through the area has traditionally been trying, but a new creation of local and foreign business players are excited for change with hopes that tourism could provide a steady foundation for an economy in flux.

One of the biggest obstacles to tourism development is a lack of quality lodges and tented camps, but a collection of new projects including Limalimo Lodge and Korkor Lodge are introducing Westernized degrees luxury and attracting more high-end visitors.

“Luxury tourism in Ethiopia remains in its infancy, especially when compared to neighboring Kenya and other countries in the area, which have a history in tourism. On the other hand, the scene is changing and new lodges are being created, which is increasing the choices open to the luxury market,” said Julia Jeans, operations manager in Limalimo Lodge.

Limalimo Lodge is a eco-lodge situated within the Simien Mountains.

Korkor Lodge is another relatively fresh, eco-lodge that sits in the base of the Gheralta Mountains at the Eastern Tigray region of Ethiopia. Rock-carved churches, archaeological sites, and wide-open plains encircle it. The lodge itself has a dozen bungalows made in honor of the first Tigrinia homes, constructed with stone mined from the countryside, and formed with an age-old artwork.

Korkor founder Luigi Catamessa first came in Ethiopia from Italy from 1992 to organize scientific assignments and movie productions and has become a writer and advocate of this untouched beauty and diversity of Ethiopia.

It is not only new possessions, but that are getting to be the nation more accessible and comfortable – Ethiopia Airways continues to open new flight routes to Europe, the US and Southeast Asia. And while many higher-end tourists traveling between sites with charter and helicopter flights, Ethiopian Airways offers a reliable domestic flight support.

Other indications of growth to come incorporate a 50-room resort in the medieval city of Gondor – the first stop from Addis on many itineraries throughout the north.

“Tourism is growing almost year on year in Ethiopia. We’ve got more political stability today so I expect the upcoming years to see really strong growth,” said Jeans.

“The business here needs to measure up to be able to fit the needs of the rising number of tourists. It is a thrilling moment and that I believe there will be a good deal of change and growth in the coming years due to an increasing number of people, but also with the nation opening up more to the luxury market.”

The political stability that Jeans describes is erratic at best. Protests started in the Oromia region in 2015, continued at the Amhara region in 2016, and in late September this year the U.S. embassy closed in anticipation of large-scale protests, which are only one risk that hoteliers and operators must consider prior to setting down roots.

Even though there are ingrained challenges for any operator keen on launch in Ethiopia, there are specific ones which come with creating a luxury experience.

The resorts are often located in distant regions, which means it can be hard accessing high-quality equipment. And even though it can be a nuisance to import many structural items such as mattresses and bedding from overseas, there’s also a plus side.

“We made a decision to concentrate indoors and only purchase what is offered in the region. We buy in the local community whenever possible, and the rest comes from Gondar that is situated 100 km away,” said Jeans.

Over 90% of Limalimo’s employees come straight from nearby communities, and many helped construct the lodge.

While Ethiopia is known for its hospitable culture, few locals have any experience working in the hospitality industry. Being among the first high-end properties means training from the bottom up.

“To offer quality services is not straightforward. We attempt to provide working opportunities to the regional young people who are dwelling in a rural ancestral society where relaxation as we understand it does not exist,” said Korkor founder Luigi Catamessa.

“Very often local people aren’t really ready to take instruction on a matter which is not part of the culture. With a lot of patience and endurance, we get to a success.”

Jeans hired an global customer support training adviser to help train employees but describes it as a continuing project.

“Not one of our employees have worked in similar jobs previously. I aim to get them to associate to the very hospitable customs that Ethiopians have in their own homes. We do get decent feedback on the customer support,” said Jeans, who expects to bring on new employees as the number of rooms and guests grow.

The lodge also facilitates visits to the local community where guests may share in coffee ceremonies and injera making that ultimately supports the neighborhood family.

Local Operators Weigh In

It is not only foreign operators who consider the pros and cons of setting up in Ethiopia. Skift talked with several regional operators on the ground who voiced both frustration about – and faith in – the nation and growth of Ethiopia’s tourism industry.

“Business changes slowly since there are several tourist hustlers at each attraction who do exactly the identical business I do. I am accredited by the Minister of Tourism, but hustlers who aren’t licensed remove our enterprise. The government can’t control them or they don’t want to stop them,” said Wolday.

Other obstacles to growing tourism in Ethiopia, said Kumie, comprise a lack of tourism policy, lack of law enforcement, and lack of government concern to the business, lack of promotion and image building, lack of banking services, and lack of clearly defined benefit-sharing mechanism within the community – plenty of lack.

Despite the irritation,neighborhood operators have been proud of the nation and convinced of its capacity to grow and evolve without losing its origins.

Major Luxury Players Remain Wary

Many of the more recognized luxury operators around Africa – including Singita, AndBeyond and Abercrombie and Kent – have yet or have only began to develop excursions or possessions within Ethiopia.

“More and more A&K travelers are searching for adventure in places that still maintain their original character and authenticity. Ethiopia offers just this adventure, with unspoiled scenery, colorful festivals and a fascinating past,” said Stefanie Schmudde, vice president of product development and operations in Abercrombie and Kent.

Without more than 18 guests each trip, a manual explores the source of the Blue Nile, the Lucy skeleton that altered society’s understanding of human development, the distinctive gelada baboons, and churches constructed high in the hills and beneath the land.

This travel ventures further off the beaten trail and deeper into the culture, sometimes forgoing a monster comfort for its exclusivity of experience,” said Schmudde.

Other significant luxury hospitality brands such as Singita and andBeyond, that have a solid presence in southern Africa and safari destinations, aren’t currently offering itineraries nor considering developing itineraries for Ethiopia in the present time. Direction from neither company would expand on their own decisions.

Journeys by Design is one of a couple of luxury operators in Ethiopia that’s developed its business over time. Will Jones, an environmental scientist, founded the business in 1999 and also the tour operator specializes in bringing hospitality to crazy spaces. The business utilizes private vehicles, private aircraft and a tiny curated group of camps and lodges to handle as much of the experience as possible.

The operator’s most frequent customers range from 35 to 75 years old, understand Africa well, and are wishing to dig deeper. They are CEOs wanting to travel by helicopter to the Danakil or Gheralta, academics seeking to gain deeper understanding of cultural, historical or ecological components, or wildlife enthusiasts which will spend days seeking a rare bird or the Ethiopian wolf.

The largest challenge the operator faces is managing luxury tourists’ expectations.

“While there has been a rise in the standard on offer, it’s jagged with fundamental, functional accommodations vastly outnumbering the sorts of luxury lodges, camps and private houses one would like to find elsewhere. The exact same is true of this infrastructure, which though again enhanced, has a way to go before it could be fairly compared with the likes of Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa,” said Chris Tinkler, Ethiopia destination expert at Journeys by Design.

The Upcoming

It is easy to get the difficulties in creating a luxury tourism ecosystem in Ethiopia, but that would be a mistake.

Ethiopia holds lots of the components that luxury travelers are looking for today – unfamiliar to the masses, a culture untouched by the machinations of society, cuisine that is both authentic, neighborhood and so good you’ll lick your palms each time.

As of today, there exists enough infrastructure and safety for the adventurous to research in relative solitude. The question then remains not if operators and hoteliers must invest in Ethiopia but if Ethiopia wants them to come.

Top picture: Lalibela (Ethiopia) Vacation Travel Video Guide

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