(CNN) – In the late 1950s, Ethiopian Airlines launched an advertising campaign in the Western media that touted the ancient kingdom as Africa’s “newest travel adventure.”
More than half a century later, the huge East African nation has yet to live up to that lofty billing. But it might not be much longer.
The sights, the scenery, the culture are already there.
Ethiopian’s ancient orthodox Christianity has endowed the nation with thousands of churches and monasteries, some of them enshrined as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
A succession of empire and kingdoms added medieval forts, palaces and tombs like the Gondar citadel and the towering stone stele of Axum.
From Lake Tana and the Blue Nile to the red-rock Gheralta Mountains, the arid Danakil Desert and the lush Omo Valley, the landscapes are astounding and incredibly varied.
Ethiopia’s wildlife riches are also diverse, from typical African savannah animals in the south to unique indigenous creatures like the gelada baboon and Ethiopian wolf.
The missing ingredient has always been infrastructure — the kind of hotels, restaurants and service that tourism rivals like Kenya and South Africa mastered decades ago.
A turning point
“Tourism was on the back burner for a long time,” says Solomon Tadesse, CEO of the Ethiopian Tourism Organization (ETO). “The country was going through major changes and the government’s priorities were health, education, communication.”
Not to mention drought, famine and revolution.
“There were fundamental reasons why tourism infrastructure was not in place.”
According to Tadesse, the government finally decided in 2013 that tourism could generate jobs, income and wealth just like any other economic sector.
A tourism transformation council was established to provide direction to the industry and the ETO was created to handle marketing, promotion and product development.
The tourism push coincided with a massive upsurge in foreign investment from China, India, Turkey and other nations that boosted GDP to annual growth rates of around 10%.
With the Ethiopian economy going like gangbusters, tourism is slowly but surely moving toward the great expectations generated more than half a century ago.
New infrastructure, expanding industry
Addis Ababa is in the midst of a building boom that includes a massive expansion of Bole International Airport and a number of new hotels including glitzy high-rise offerings from Marriott and InterContinental currently under construction.
The national capital has a new light rail system (the first in Africa) and the Chinese government has undertaken the $4-billion task of rebuilding and modernizing the old railroad line between Addis and Djibouti.
A brand new superhighway whisks traffic through the Great Rift Valley south of the capital while a nationwide road improvement campaign is rapidly improving land transport between other major cities.
Provincial capitals are getting new airport terminals, and in some cases (like Jinka), airports where there was nothing before.
Ethiopian Airlines is also bulking up. Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, the national air carrier is in the midst of a massive expansion that includes the latest Boeing and Airbus aircraft.
The route network is also growing, with New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Dublin, Cape Town and Manila added since early 2015.
Tadesse expects tourism arrivals to reach one million for the first time this year, doubling the number of visitors from just three years ago.
With so many new hotels and infrastructure improvements, Addis Ababa is ready for the rush. But doubts remain about whether the rest of the nation is prepared to become the next big thing in African travel.
Attractive new accommodations
Far and away the main issue beyond the capital is the substandard accommodation. Even the best hotels in celebrated destinations like Gondar, Lalibela and Bahir Dar hover just above a backpacker level.
The hotel situation in the south is even more dire, with only a handful of properties rising above a single star.
Problems range from lack of air conditioning, mosquito netting and basic bathroom amenities to lackluster service, less-than-stellar restaurant food and litter-filled hotel grounds.
Yet here and there you find a gem.
Like Gheralta Lodge in the mountains of the same name between Axum and Mek’ele in northern Ethiopia. Perched on a lofty ridge, the stone cottages overlook a stunning red-rock landscape redolent of America’s Southwest.
“I spent six months going around Ethiopia with my wife making a list of 13 places that would be ideal for a hotel,” says lodge owner and founder Silvio Rizzotti, an Italian citizen who was born in Ethiopia. “We narrowed that down to three before deciding that Gheralta was the best place to create a modern eco-lodge.”
New hotels are also in the works in the other places. Addis Ababa-based Jacaranda is developing luxury properties on the shores of Lake Tana near Bahir Dar, on a hilltop above the ancient stele of Axum, in Simien Mountains National Park and overlooking historic Gondar.
The properties will be managed by South Africa’s AHA hotel group, one of the most experienced lodge, camp and hotel operators at the bottom end of the continent. Expected to open later this year or in early 2017, Jacaranda’s Gondar Hills resort is especially impressive, a $20-million mountaintop property. The environmentally friendly hotel will feature 110 rooms hewn from local stone and tucked beneath energy-saving sod roofs.
“Tourism is new in Ethiopia,” says Jacaranda manager Andinet Feleke. “So you can’t compared with Kenya or Tanzania. It wasn’t a government priority until recently.”
“But over the last three or four years, the situation has improved a lot. And there’s much more awareness now that tourism is important to Ethiopia, that we can compete with Africa’s top destinations.”