September is one of the busiest months for Arega Taddese, a tour guide born and raised in the town of Lalibela, one of the famous tourist attraction sites in Ethiopia. But these days Arega can be found sitting on a roadside around Legehar in Addis Ababa.
On August 3, 2021, Arega and other residents started fleeing when rebels advanced to Lalibela, home to 13th Century Churches hewn from rock. It is now under the control of the TPLF forces.
After struggling for weeks Arega and his family have settled in a relative's house in the capital.
“Everything is changing dramatically, we are forced to be displaced from our home town due to the conflict. Since my income is declining, I am now suffering even to feed myself,” Arega told Addis Zeybe.
He says September is usually the start of the high season but not this year. “Because of the conflict happening in northern parts of the country, some tourists have already canceled their trips to Ethiopia.”
Last year, with attractions in the town closed and governmental restrictions placed on travel across the globe due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the tourism business in Ethiopia became a major casualty of the sharp and sudden industry downturn.
Meanwhile, Arega and others in the industry were expecting this New Year to signal a recovery in their business. Though the impact of the pandemic gradually lessened, the conflict which broke out in Tigray posed another challenge for the tourism sector which represents 9.4% of Ethiopia's total economy.
In one or another way, the conflict is affecting many tourist destinations in northern Ethiopia, which is known for its most famous historical tourist attractions.
In Tigray, one of Africa’s oldest mosques, and is touted as a potential Unesco World Heritage site. al-Nejashi is believed to be one of the oldest mosques in Africa but has been damaged due to the war.
Arega says tourism is a source of income, directly or indirectly, for many citizens of Lalibela. This means that any fall-off in visitors affects the entire community.
Tewodros Assefa, a tour operator in Addis Ababa, usually sends tourists to historic sites in northern Ethiopia. But since the conflict began in November he says no tourists are contacting his office for a visit to northern Ethiopia.
Rock churches in the historical town of Lalibela, in northern Ethiopia. They attract thousands of tourists each year. But the expanding conflict in the northern part of the country is scaring away tourists.”
Several tour operators say they have about 50 percent less business than last year and some are not sure how quickly things will get better and when tourists will return.
"As citizens, we all worry more about the situation in our country than our business, this is something which we can't complain about," Tewodros told Addis Zeybe during an interview in his office around Bole Medhanialem, Addis Ababa.
The Ethiopian Ministry of Tourism and Culture predicts that there will be 2.5 million arrivals per year in 2021, along with the COVID-19 crisis and the consequences of the armed conflict in the Tigray region that started back in November 2020. Some argue these numbers could not be achieved.
We have seen this conflict is causing enormous human and economic damage to the country, especially regions that are directly involved in the conflicts are starting to face immediate dangers, said a service expert with over a decade of experience.
Arega has witnessed this, with almost all of his friends and their families displaced due to the war. They are now struggling to feed themselves. “I am not even sure how and when we will return to our village and resume my job.”
When it comes to the effects of a conflict in the tourism sector, the expert fears that it may take a decade for the sector to recover.
“First of all both warring parts should protect heritage sites from being damaged and prevent any attempts to loot and pillage cultural properties located in the area,” the expert said.
“Authorities in the sector need to prepare a recovery strategy which could direct the rehabilitation of tourism post-conflict,” he added.
Ethiopia is preparing to celebrate 42nd World Tourism Day next week with the theme "Tourism for Inclusive Growth" Last week, some activities commemorating the day were carried out in Dire Dawa town.
Speaking on the occasion, State Minister of Culture and Tourism, Buzena Al-Keder, said a strategic plan is being implemented to rehabilitate the tourism sector which has been highly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. She said the plan focuses on domestic tourism and will enable the sector to contribute to the overall development, peace of the country.
Arega and others will wait jobless till those better days come.