Ethiopia’s direct route from Dublin opened up one of the tourism gems of the world.
It helps that Ethiopian have 18 domestic connections through the old terminal in Addis.
The country is big and diverse, with 84 languages, the distances long, and most of the roads painfully slow. The tourist route to the south through Bishoftu, Adama and the wine region of Ziway to the rift valley is technically asphalted, but is a 20 kilometres and hour ordeal until a new highway is completed.
The tourism jewels are to the north and the roads are better, asphalt all the way from Addis Ababa to the Simien Mountains, and Addis Ababa to Axum the other way, a circuit of Bahir Dar with its lake monasteries, Gondar with its medieval castle, Lalibela with stone churches straight from the earliest stages of Christianity (think an ancient Irish monastery, complete with sacred crosses, illuminated books and bearded priests) and Axum, where the Ark of the Covenant is still stashed, a single priest acting as custodian to its amazing powers (don’t tell Indiana Jones, but he got it wrong).
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Bahir Dar. beside the large Lake Tana on the Nile. has the mix Ethiopia needs, enough tourist beds and enough attractions to see: 37 islands with 19 churches and monasteries on the islands.
You can keep your eye out for birds as you ferry out along the lake, tern, fish eagle, african jackanna, white pelican, Egyptian goose and cormorant.
Pana Kilkus, where Mary reportedly stayed for three months and 10 days during the flight to Egypt is the jewel of the crown but most people stop by more accessible monatsteries to visit the circular church Narga Selassie on Dek Island..
The footpath was wet as we rise in the peninsula. The stalls pop up with regularity, three metres apart, then four or five metres apart. One man with a blue scarf over his head has souvenirs, and a variety of crosses for sale. A woman with a grey scarf looked the other direction, distracted.
We passed the traditional church school where the chatter of the children could be heard. A woman was selling wild coffee right beside where the plant was growing, the beans still green rather than red.
The gate to the monastery is like an ancient Irish monastery, for all the world what Glendalough used to be like, compete with its almshouse entrance.
The guide shows me a long stone hung with wire on to a frame that served as a bell in pre-metallic times.
I counted 22 stalls on the way back down from the church. Roasted coffee, leather, papyrus, crosses and jewellery.
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The journey to Tisisat Falls is short but ardous on an unpaved road. The Blue Nile is not very blue. It is full of mud, rich mucky red mud, like the earth that is on the path. Despite the fact that crocodiles sleep in the morning here, people will put their clothes on their head and wade through the water home in the evening when the boat is not running. Volcanic rocks are strewn like pebbles all over the valley.
Small children come and ask passers by for pens, boys play their flutes trying to sell their wares.
A family group passes, collecting pentode beans. A club footed boy lies in the grass.
The green is pockmarked with scrub bushes on the hills ahead. Three heifers pass with a calf and a white goat with white eyebrows looking for all the world like it wandered out of a trendy night club in Addis. And when to the right hand side, smoke like mist is rising from the falls, the precipitous green slopes behind it.
It billows a little and blows along the canyon as if unsure what to do next. Last time I saw them there is barely enough water to make it over the cliff but now the path is muddy and the falls are full with copper coloured earth, dirty and foamy.
Before the hydroelectric station the falls flooded all the way across this flat green basin, 400 metres wide. It must have been a sight.
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Tony Hickey from Dun Laoghaire has been bringing Irish tourists to Ethiopia for three decades. “The Irish have been coming to Ethiopia for years, particularly in the last five or six years large groups have been coming for the Great Ethiopian Run, and many stay on for pre or post trips to Lalibela.”
“Ethiopia is still great for security, you can wander around in safety, dropping into traditional music houses and other places.”
“Whenever you make things easier for people, as with direct flights, visas on arrival, you can expect numbers to pick up. We run birding trips down through the Rift Valley, Bale Mountains, Harenna Forest down and around to Yabello and back up the Rift Valley. We used to have to deploy four by fours, but now can do the whole trip in a Coaster Bus.”
“Even the East bank of the Omo Valley can be done by Coaster bus, except for one trip, to the Karo people.”
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Hotels have been slower to improve but there is the beginning of a tourist movement. Tadiwos Getachew started operating spas in the USA where he opened Boston Day Spa. Now his Kuriftu Resort and Spa group has five resorts within Etihopia.
His 50-acre estate at Debre Zeit 45kms southeast of Addis Ababa comprises 105 suites, a swimming pool with sunbathing terrace, an organic spa with Swedish style steam rooms and a gourmet restaurant, and looks out onto a lake with a two-mile across Mountain View.
It became a favourite of African leaders attending OAU summits in Addis Adaba. He also has resorts in Bahir Dar, central Addis Adaba (Guesthouse), Burayu to the northwest of Addis, Adama and a wine resort in Ziway in central Ethiopia south of Addis.
He says tourism in Ethiopia can be bigger than Kenya and Tanzania, with so many attractions and so many direct air routes and the 4m members of the Ethiopian diaspora.
“Addis the capital of Africa. They have all the connections. Two milion, four milion, nine milion tourists a year. Nothing will stop it once it starts to happen.”
“We need to wake up and smell the coffee. We are like a doctor that lost all our equipment, we have to get it back.”
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Eoghan Corry flew to Ethiopia with Ethiopian Airlines, who commence a 3w service from Dublin to Addis Adaba on June 19 2015 and onwards to 18 domestic and 70 international destinations, 40 of them in Africa.
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