By Barry Malone, ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopia hopes to exploit growing business ties with China, India and Turkey to attract middle class visitors from those countries and boost its largely untapped tourism sector.
China and India have displaced many western countries as the major investors in Africa, including Ethiopia, where they have invested billions of dollars in recent years.
Turkey, with a burgeoning middle class, is negotiating a plan with Ethiopia to set up an industrial zone for Turkish companies near Addis Ababa to export agricultural commodities and leather goods.
“We have a large workforce of Chinese and Indians in Ethiopia now,” tourism minister, Mohamoud Dirir, told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday. “These young workers and entrepreneurs will talk to their families about Ethiopia.”
Ethiopia has been trying for years to attract foreign visitors to its ancient obelisks and rock-hewn churches, remote areas inhabited by nomadic tribes and desert sites where scientists unearthed evidence of the birth of humanity.
The sector was neglected during the Marxist rule of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mohamoud said, and now accounts for a mere 2.5 percent of the huge Horn of African nation’s economy.
Charities say a rise in tourism may lead to exploitation, saying some farmers have already stopped working the land and earn money solely by charging tourists photographing them.
“I don’t buy what these agencies say,” Mohamoud said. “The communities still work the land and they take the little they earn from tourism to educate their children and improve lives.”
The country of about 80 million people — one of the world’s poorest — managed to protect its tourism earnings during the global downturn, which came in at $204 million in 2009, only marginally lower from the $213 million in 2008.
Some 430,000 tourists visited Ethiopia in 2009 and the government aims at one million visitors in 10 years. Mohamoud did not say how many of those visitors were from the three countries targeted.
“During the financial crisis, tourists who were planning to go to expensive destinations had to look elsewhere,” he said, adding that Ethiopia was value for money and a new experience.
State-owned Ethiopian Airlines operates 14 flights a week to Beijing and Guangzhou and 12 flights a week to New Delhi and Mumbai. Turkish Airlines operates weekly direct flights between Addis Ababa and Istanbul.
Mohamoud said Ethiopia was seeking investment in tourism from China, India, the Gulf states and wealthy Ethiopians.
“People should invest because we have political peace and stability in Ethiopia, macroeconomic stability and great untapped potential,” he said.