Ex-Diplomat Taking Over Ethiopia's Tourism
(AllAfrica Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Solomon Tadesse is the Chief Executive Officer of the Ethiopian Tourism Organization (ETO. Most of his life, Solomon lived in the US. During the time of the emperor and later the Derg, he associated himself with the student movement.
He maintained close contact with the current government in those early days and was bold in talking about the economic, political and social policies of the existing government. Now he is back home for a new assignment as head the newly-established ETO. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter sat down with Solomon at his office to talk about the future of the tourism sector to which the former consul general to the US was assigned to lead. Excerpts:
The Reporter: I know you served as a consul general to the US back in olden days. But tell us more about yourself.
Solomon Tadesse: I lived in America for 43 years. I went to school there. I left Ethiopia for the US when the emperor was in power. As any young man and woman of that time, we had joined the Ethiopian students union in North America. We were actively involved in establishing a government that is acceptable to the people during imperial and military days. Therefore, we had advocated and exposed the brutal nature of the military government. It was killing young people and destroying the country. Hence, by doing so, we were sympathetic to other freedom-fighters who were struggling against the regime. As time went by, I was very much interested in the changes in the lives of poor Ethiopians, farmers and what not. After that struggle the government was changed and the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)-led government assumed power. Their programs, their openness to the reality of Ethiopia and their concerns for the majority of Ethiopia impressed me and I had started supporting the government. By the same token, it was a good time for me to contribute to the development and to be part of the team that was bringing about change in Ethiopia for the majority of the people. Based on that, I had initiated various actions such as attracting investors to Ethiopia in hope of establishing some kind of manufacturing here. I took the initiative on my own, went and met the Siemens to bring solar power to Ethiopia. It did not happen in the solar energy sector, but Siemens was willing to come and explore the opportunities and came and invested and established an office here. But, unfortunately, the timing was not right. However, these were just initiatives and, at the same time, I was working with the Ethiopian communities in Seattle to portray the positive side of the country. We explained to the youth what Ethiopia had gone through and told them that things were changing for the better. I had made many speeches and explained Ethiopia to Americans who did not know any better. The starting of our change has never been smooth. I was trying to understand and basically explain that understanding that is a process we are going through. A new phenomenon in the country is happening. When you go through a new change, there are always obstacles. Yet, such obstacles are temporary. Hence, doing that, I think the government of Ethiopia had recognized my efforts and they asked me to be the honorary consul general in Seattle. That gave me more access to go out and explain what kind of development is going on and what kind of economic, political as well as foreign policies Ethiopia is following and developing. Ethiopia developed Ethiopian policies that are for Ethiopians, unlike other countries. Unfortunately, the negative images of our country had persisted for long. But, at the same time, I believed that throughout the whole thing the internal strength of the country, the struggle of the people would change that image and that is what we are witnessing at the moment. I was privileged to have that position to put a little bit of effort to contribute to the development of our country.
How long did you hold your diplomatic post?
For almost ten years I was appointed as consul general to the US. That gives you lots of leeway to access governments in the US on any occasion and in any situation. More or less, I was actually the only African honorary consul general there. Hence, by default, I had to represent Africa as a whole; the establishment and success of the African Union and the role Ethiopia has been playing in this. It is even outside the country that my responsibility lay to explain what is going on in general. Hence, it took some ten years to do that.
Currently you are given the authority to run the new Ethiopian Tourism Organization (ETO). How far do you think you can take it with the existing challenges the tourism sector has been facing?
The challenge is enormous, but the recent history of our country has been a very good example. We had a government that dictated and destroyed Ethiopia for 17 years supported by Russians and Cubans. It was the largest well-armed military country in Africa. Normally, you wouldn't say we could challenge this. But our brothers and sisters who committed themselves and believed in the cause overthrew the regime. They had sacrificed a lot and it took a while but finally this mighty power was totally destroyed by our brothers and sisters. This current history is a good example for us. Tourism is everything and our goal and mission is to make Ethiopia one of the destinations for tourism in the world. That means it will require a lot of challenge and work; but it can be done. It is a commitment that says we need to achieve what we set out to achieve. The challenges may be on many fronts, but finding the main contradiction and resolving it may happen within a short time. Again, new contradictions may occur and the rest of the problems get resolved when you really hit the main target. It is doable and I have committed myself to come here. It is the sole purpose at this point in my life. Prior to that, some four years ago, if you know, I was invited by the late PM Meles Zenawi to come and organize an international conference on federalism. That was my first exposure to working within Ethiopia with all the challenges then. Especially when you have a deadline, there were many challenges. But for me, the challenges were opportunities for changes. The conference turned out to be successful. The current job is a permanent one that does not have a specific deadline. But the beauty about it is that it gives me the opportunity to share the experience I have accumulated for years in the U.S. At the same time, I share that with my brothers and sisters here who did not have that opportunity. There are other ways to get things done and I want to pass that experience for people working with us. It's not a one-way street to reach where we want to reach. Hence, it's a commitment; it's tenacity; it's understanding of the global situations and applying that to the Ethiopian situation. The fundamental thing is that I think whenever we face a challenge, we always come up on top using our own Ethiopian ways. That is the only thing that has sustained us for long. Our tourism can be outside of the Ethiopian way of solving problems. We will get there.
Don't you think 2015 is your deadline?
You have said from the economic plan perspectives, you have USD three billion birr revenue to generate from the tourism sector and double the number of tourists to one million. Do you think that is attainable?
Yes, well the question is, as I said, what is driving us and that what we thought is behind what we think to be not attainable. It's in our history. I am not just saying this out of emotions or nationalism but those are the things we need to do to get there. We in Ethiopia today may be the only people in the world who have all the diverse realities of life, nature, history, wildlife and landscape in every aspect of it. When we ask those questions we will see what the things are that we need to do. We need to put things into perspective. The fundamental one is that we need to challenge our standard. Are we on par with..? Is our standard acceptable in a world of global tourism destinations? If not, what are the solutions we need to bring for that? We need to upgrade our destinations. We will involve all the stakeholders like the tour operators, hotel operators, and destination operators. Intervention is important to maintain the flow of tourism. Improving the existing destinations as well as developing new ones is what we will do. Basically, we need to really clean up our house first and make it attractive for the tourists coming and be sure they will keep on coming. We need to prepare ourselves for that. Our first task is to really see the low hanging fruits, which need to be grabbed and taken out of the way. Eventually, we are talking about 2015 or 2020. We have to have a holistic approach because tourism is the face of the Ethiopian government. Policies coming out by different offices will affect us. Without compromising our peace and security, there are issues that tend to be obstacles for our development and we will work with the government to remove those. Once we have identified a way we can clean our house, we will then bring a sellable product. We have set up our ultimate goals. We need to identify the capacities to get us there. We will look at every stakeholders in all aspects. Once we have developed products, the next issue will be how to market it. The best marketing practices will be looked at. But it has to be an Ethiopian way. We cannot say we want to market the way Kenya is marketing. The mandate given to us basically is marketing a product or a destination. We have to solicit investors for that task. We have to facilitate them to come and invest in both the existing and the newly-developed destinations. We have already set up acceptable standards. We work with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. They will regulate and foresee the policies into perspective. Capacity building, working with stakeholders and identifying sellable products and marketing and facilitating and coordinating things for investors are the core tasks we will work on. That is a long-term process.
In your recent interviews, you were vocal about the lack of infrastructure as one challenge for the development of tourism.
I don't know if I did say that. But when I am referring to infrastructure, it does not necessarily mean highways, bridges or this and that. To really meet the goals we have set, we have to be all-rounded. Tour operators need to be very professional. Tour guides have to be trained and be professionals. The customs and immigration people have to understand the whole concept of tourism in Ethiopia. Basically, I think our main challenge will be to have a clear understanding of the importance of tourism. When we talk about textiles, people might easily understand that. When we look at tourism, in many cases, if you ask a regular individual, he may tell you about Axum or Lalibela. But tourism is more than that. One tourist may mean jobs for probably 15 or 16 Ethiopians. We earn foreign currency, which we need for many economic reasons. Hence, this understanding must be very clear among Ethiopians, including government officials. Lacking this understanding, people tend to take tourism just like any other business. We do have responsibilities. If you don't care to throw trash everywhere across the streets, it might mean to the rest of the world that it is a dirty country and no one will come. Such kind of an understanding will take time. The community at every corner needs to benefit from tourism. When that happens they might be the first ones to protect the sector. We have to make sure that happens. We will work on domestic tourism expansion. As tourism is good for outsiders, it is also good for ourselves because we have a different culture and many different nationalities to visit and see.
You are saying that the job is very vast and will require lots of energy and time. But you have until the year 2020 to make Ethiopia become one of the top five destinations in Africa.
Yes, I think it's doable. As I said, we have to look at it unlike other times. Currently, the government has looked at the potentials of tourism. It is an industry that will be one of the major contributing sectors to the country. Measures taken so far include the formation of the transformational council led by PM Hailemariam Desalegn. This says something very strong. Taking ETO out of the ministry and making it responsible for promoting and marketing the country and for developing products is a serious step the government has taken. We are very late in the game. Many African nations have done their shares. They have built and improved their infrastructure. We are starting from ground zero. But, it could be very beneficiary since we attempt not to make the same mistakes others made before. We will make use of the technology to its fullest. We want to make sure people coming here are secured. Peace and stability might be one of the products that we will look at. I think this is a doable project. We will definitely exert 110 percent of our energy in that. We know we are behind our neighbors so we need to run fast. We can't perform slow and do business as usual.
If you mention neighbors, people love to say that Kenya, only having the wildlife safaris, has amassed a lot out of tourism. We, unlike Kenya, have both tangible and intangible tourist destinations. You are talking about identifying sellable products. Will that include developing wildlife safaris or game parks?
Well, many people come and try to tell us about Kenya that it has this and that. If you look at it, Kenya is all about the European investment. It is the Europeans who are controlling Kenyan tourism. They have designed the system very well. When you look at the game parks, it was basically not necessary for Kenyans but for the colonizers. They have done incredible infrastructure. They have done amazing tourist attractions sites. Yes, Kenya has its own. It has wildlife, tourist-attracting beaches. Yes, they do have Mombasa and other places. That is the quality they have. What sellable products we have will be identified. But, we will not identify that based on Kenya but based on what Ethiopia can offer. If we want to compare Ethiopia and Kenya, you have to have the measurement of what these two nations have in peculiarity. Kenya has its own torch to light and Ethiopia has its own torch to light. My job, hence, is to make sure that Ethiopia's torch is lit all the time, in fact with more flames, so to speak. That is want I want to do. We have so much we can put into the tourism market. For example, if you drive for three hours or so in Kenya, you might come across a resting public area where people relax to have coffee or have access for toilets. We don't have those things here. Infrastructure development also has to provide those kinds of accesses for the tourists. But because we are starting from ground zero, it doesn't mean that we are inferior. We do have many advantages. If we decide to become one of the top five African destinations, we need to identify what it takes for us to get there. We have to run in every aspects.
If you talk about marketing, is there any way you might change the country's brand, that is, the 13 months of sunshine?
I think the 13 months of sunshine brand came following a European tough winter. It was a sleek motto at the time. It's been in use for long. It worked well and we still have 13 months of sunshine. The issue today is that we have a smarter tourist coming. Market intelligence shows that different types are coming in. There are adventure lovers, tourists interested in historical aspects or there are those eager to come for wildlife. Hence, the slogan, even if it tells about the weather or shininess of Ethiopia, we have lots of other products we have to sell. We have Ethiopia as the birthplace of coffee, like the birthplace of Lucy. In addition to the 13 months of sunshine, we can come up with all kinds of stuff. Basically, the world is here with Ethiopia. If we initiate rebranding the country, the new brand has to tell the world who and what you can see and get in Ethiopia. It should tell all about it.
So you don't have a new brand so far?
We have so many different ideas. But when we come up with the brand, it has to be well rounded, well thought of and very well studied. We have to have professionals to look at everything we have and say this is great for Ethiopia. What are the things we need to do that are inclusive of all the things we have. That brand will take us for ten or 20 years so it needs to be well thought out. We are in the process of working on that. When we look at Ethiopia, I think we have so much to offer. We are not just starting to be. We have offered for the development of civilization. We did a lot way back and we are trying to reclaim that now. We had contributed a great deal to today's reality. Unfortunately, in the gap between things got lost. But we still have got a lot to offer.
We have welcomed Ethiopian for its recent 40 percent price cut in the domestic flights. But we heard nothing from the catering and tour operating sectors. Will it be the case for them to follow suit?
Who are the beneficiaries and stakeholders in tourism? It is a question that everybody has to understand. Because of what we are going to do and what we are promoting, we are bringing guests here. The expensively invested hotels are not only serving meals and rooms, they have to have a consumer that keeps coming time and time again. We need to work together hand in hand for that to happen. We have to work together for our benefits; for the benefits of the country and for the benefits of the business people. We are all in the same boat. They have to work on their share and contribute to tourism work for all of us.
What will be your immediate job in the coming year or two to market Ethiopia's tourism?
The marketing aspect of tourism traditionally was done via trade fares organized outside. This time round, for the 2007 Ethiopian year, we will cut down the number of trade show appearances abroad. Our concentration will mostly be on working with various stakeholders in the country. We will approach regional governments, heritage and wildlife authorities and work on standard improvements. At the same time, we will limit involvements in international trade shows to give try to roadshows. We will organize such events via our embassies in partnerships. They will invite tour operators, travel agents, writers, historians, journalists and everyone considered to contribute to the sector. Recently, I met with ambassadors here and made presentations. We are in a sort of agreement on points of responsibilities. We are working with African nations too on how we can work together to bring more tourists by using Ethiopia as a gateway for Africa. On the other hand, we are also looking at the diaspora to contribute. We have come up with an idea and we are developing a point system where each restaurant in the US will have a symbol that might read 'we are a member of ETO.' So, we will provide brochures and other materials that they will exchange, and give out business cards. If tourists refer on how they were made to come to Ethiopia, how they heard about Ethiopia, say via a certain restaurant or business, then we have a point system that will help us to reward the businesses for their efforts and contributions. We are trying have the name Ethiopia ring a bell in everybody's ear.
Copyright The Reporter. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com).
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