Ethiopia: Fierce, Proud And Open For Business

Looking for an authentic experience and unique culture unsullied by global big brands and sanitised tourism? Welcome to Ethiopia.

It won’t take you long to realise that Ethiopia follows its own rhythm. This is a country which values relationships above emails, and views sharing a meal as a sign of friendship.

This may seem old-fashioned, but as our driver, Demiss Mamo, explained with reverence: Ethiopians adhere to the 13-month ancient Coptic calendar, which is about seven years behind the Gregorian calendar.

Plus, there is “forengi” (foreigner) time and “vashi” (Abyssinian) time to consider, so this really is the land that time forgot.

Tomoca coffee shop, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Tomoca coffee shop, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

An Outward Focus

That said, since the bloody overthrow of the communist military junta in 1991, Ethiopia has been adopting a more outward focus. Over the past decade, it has been Africa’s fastest-growing economy, expanding at more than 10% a year.

But, as the only country in Africa never to be colonised, Ethiopians are fiercely and proudly independent.

This was clearly evident during a trip to the National Museum of Ethiopia, which houses those treasures not looted from the country and shipped off to the likes of the British Museum.

Having viewed the remains of our human ancestor Lucy, golden crowns worn by Ethiopia’s emperors, thrones and artworks, we were exiting the building when an eager man armed with papers and pens asked: “Did you like Lucy?”

He was conducting a survey, asking foreigners for their impressions of the museum. We would have chatted longer, but as a group of German tourists wandered into view he was gone in a flash.

A Whimsical Temperament

Talking about the artworks on display, Demiss spoke with pride of emperors like Tewodros II and Haile Selassie, pointing to the finely crafted headdresses, ornate robes and weapons.

This contrasted with more modern art like Biruk Mengistu’s Women of the Street, Tulu Guya’s Africa and Hope, by Muluken Debebe, all of which convey the confidence – and humour – of an emerging Ethiopia.

Time and again you will encounter this whimsical temperament. This was particularly evident at the top of Mount Entoto, a marvellous vantage point over Addis Ababa.

While Maryam Church is the popular tourist attraction, we ventured further up to Kiddus Raguel Church, where Orthodox Good Friday celebrations were taking place. Given the sanctity of the holiday, tourists were not allowed inside, but Demiss popped in to offer up a prayer.

We strolled around, and then approached a lady selling water. Unable to communicate, we took two bottles, handed over a 50 Birr note and smiled. She did too. “Ameseginalehu (thank you),” she beamed, pocketing the money.

Intermittently she’d find us as we gazed over the hills and watched the crowd, offer us another bottle and smile broadly. A bottle, we later learnt, costs about 10 Birr.

Panoramic view of the airport road area in Addis Ababa where most of the foreign embassies and consulates are located, Ethiopia

Growing Tourism 

Tourists are not a regular sight, but this is hardly surprising given that, in 2017, Ethiopia attracted just 933 000 travellers, up from 870 000 in 2016.

With the exception of a few tour groups and two women backpackers trudging up the road in the city centre, tourists were in short supply.

Yes, you will encounter your fair share of foreigners in your hotel, but many are clearly on business or en route to more exotic locations like the Obelisk of Axum or the fortified town of Harar.

The monolithic medieval churches of Lalibela, carved out of rock in the 12th century, are today recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is an experience not to be missed.

People who visit Ethiopia can’t get enough of the place. This might account for the fact that (according to the World Travel & Tourism Council) Ethiopia’s tourism sector grew by 48.6% last year, streaks ahead of the African average of 5.6% and the global average of 3.9%.

An African Adventure

This could be more if the country could find a way of convincing the 35% of passengers who just transit through the country to stop over.

Part of this reticence has to do with perceptions. Which is why, for now at least, the country’s attraction lies in its unknown quantity as a deeply rewarding but potentially challenging destination.

Even transiting through Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport can be an adventure. The airport, which has just undergone a US$363-million upgrade (funded by China), is still a shabby version of the grandiose promise.

Security queues can be long and chaotic, and once you have made it through to the boarding area, there are no coffee stands or eateries. Water is available only courtesy of a few water coolers, making a long wait less than comfortable.

But in other areas, like visas, Ethiopia is on par with the digital efficiency of a United States. Ethiopia’s eVisa portal is quick and easy to use, enabling you to apply for, pay and print out a visa before you travel.

A single-entry, 30-day tourist visa will set you back US$52. African Union (AU) member states can also make use of visa-on-arrival facilities, at the same cost.

Mercato, Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, Africa

Mercato, Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, Africa

Countless Ways To Explore The Capital 

Once you have offloaded your baggage, there are countless ways to explore Ethiopia’s vibrant capital, from wandering wide-eyed around the massive open-air Addis Mercato market, to remembering Ethiopia’s fallen at the Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum, or visiting the glittering AU headquarters.

For foodies, sampling the delights of Ethiopian cuisine is an experience not to be missed.

The locals may look at you in disbelief when you order traditional shiro and spongy injera flatbread or tuck into a bowl of fuul (a mixture of spiced fava beans) for breakfast, but beyond asking: “Do you know what that is?” they will shrug and bring you a meal fit for a king, and then watch while you tuck in.

The same goes when participating in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. While you might look at the salty-sweet popcorn on offer with scepticism, it is the most moreish accompaniment to the finest coffee in the world, so go with it.

“Coffee is our way of saying hello,” Demiss explained. It is a slow and deliberate ritual imbued with sacred meaning and humanity. It is Ethiopia in a nutshell: a country built on old-fashioned relationships, sincere goodwill, honour, and deep-seated national pride.

Getting There

South African Airways operates six flights daily between Johannesburg and Addis Ababa, which are operated by Ethiopian Airlines. Book your tickets today! 

Words by Cara Bouwer