9th December 2016
Ethiopia has always been one of our favourite travel destinations and for very good reason - stunning scenery, extraordinary rock-cut churches and a fascinating history are just some of the highlights. However, recent internal issues in the country have led to a number of tour operators cancelling their trips, leaving Wild Frontiers as one of the only travel companies still running holidays there. We take the safety of our clients incredibly seriously and have kept a very close eye on the situation throughout, enabling us to feel confident to continue to send travellers there. We were delighted that the FCO recently changed its travel advice, meaning that everywhere we go on both our Northern Explorer and Southern Ethiopia tours has the added benefit of being FCO friendly again.
Our Head of Group Tour Sales, James Leask, has just spent two weeks on our Ethiopia: Northern Explorer tour, so who better to tell us about what it's like travelling in Ethiopia at the moment, in particular from a safety point of view?
What's it like travelling in Ethiopia at the moment?
It's very quiet from a tourist perspective. At a lot of the key sights we had the place to ourselves; at St George's Church in Lalibela we were the only tour group there which is just unheard of usually. It felt quite surreal being in such an iconic location with no other tourists around. We didn't see any issues at all - everywhere was completely peaceful and life was continuing as normal. In fact, travelling around Ethiopia is quite similar to rural India; miles and miles of beautiful countryside along with a relaxed pace of life and this was as evident whilst we were there as at any other time.
It's also worth noting that internet access is currently very limited - some places have better connection than others, but don't expect to be able to access the internet wherever you are. However, this of course has the benefit of meaning you can actually switch off and appreciate the country for the beautiful place it is.
Are the locals welcoming tourists at the moment?
Yes - more than ever. There is no hostility towards foreigners and all of the recent issues have been internally focused. On the contrary tourists are being welcomed with open arms. Tourist numbers are dramatically down on previous years, which is having a huge impact on the economy. The charity TESFA (Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives), who we work with closely on our tours, is a community-run organisation and the recent lack of visitors has had a huge knock-on effect on the local economy, which relies heavily on tourism.
Did you and the rest of the group feel safe?
Absolutely. The biggest threat to travellers is hearing some cheeky comments from a local child, looking for handouts! We find the best way to support this is to visit local schools and donate materials such as pens and paper, which they can then distribute responsibly. Unlike other African countries you don't see people carrying guns everywhere, so there is no visible threat and this is echoed by the Ethiopians' warm hospitality and welcoming smiles.
What does Wild Frontiers do to help reassure our travellers?
Our group commented on how well we handled communication with them before the trip. We take the safety of our clients very seriously and always put them first but, on this occasion, we didn't feel there was a reason why we shouldn't go ahead with the trip. We were constantly assessing the risk with our local contacts on the ground, as well as our tour leader, who is an Ethiopian national. Having these strong connections meant we could rely heavily on their guidance, rather than simply looking at the FCO advice. We also had a 'Plan B itinerary' in place, meaning we had a contingency route if we needed to avoid certain areas of the country at the last minute. Whilst on the trip our tour leader carried a satellite phone, meaning he could always make contact with the office if required in an emergency. In addition, our insurance provider offers a comprehensive policy, regardless of the FCO advice in place. Having all of these strategies, along with providing regular updates and correspondence with our clients, meant we could offer a first-class service with our clients' safety at the heart of it.
What was the tour highlight?
After seeing an advert in a restaurant I contacted a local running coach, who also happened to be a former Ethiopian national 800m champion. As a keen runner myself I welcomed the opportunity to go for a run with him around Lalibela. Afterwards he invited me round to his house for coffee. I immediately took him up on the opportunity, which gave me a unique insight into how Ethiopians typically live, whilst also meeting his family, all of whom were equally welcoming. Not once did I feel unsafe; this is just typical of the warmth of the locals.
As one of the well-travelled clients on our recent Northern Explorer trip said, “Ethiopia is like nowhere else in Africa”. I’d heartily recommend you go and find out for yourself!