Tewolde Gebremariam is looking rather pleased with himself. Not surprising really considering his airline, Ethiopian Airlines, continues its impressive expansion as Africa’s number one carrier running the only daily east-west flight across the continent and a Star Alliance Member since December 2011.
As CEO, he is a pivotal force behind this success, but he wears another hat as Ethiopia’s head of tourism, another role without its fair share of challenges it must be said, but nevertheless, a perfect opportunity for him to be able to influence and shape Ethiopia’s fledgling tourism. industry.
“We know we have to improve our hotels and transport infrastructure to international standards” he tells me “and we fully intend to do this. Just look at what we have achieved at Ethiopian. We have a world class airline to bring visitors here, and we want them to see what a beautiful country this is.”
If he can achieve this, there is no doubt this is a country with unparalleled potential for tourism littered as it is with UNESCO heritage sites; after all it’s not called the cradle of mankind for nothing. This rather grand moniker follows the unearthing in the Awash Valley in north east Ethiopia, of the oldest human skeletons in existence, some 4 million years old. Somewhat younger are the giant obelisks at Aksum once the capital of the mighty Axumite civilization, the Queen of Sheba, the twelve churches of Lalibela literally hewn from monolithic rock, the walled city of Harrar, the 4th holiest city in Islam and the 17th centruy castles in Gondar. The list just runs and runs; and, thanks to a goat herder in the Kaffa region noticing his goats were getting jumpy from eating a particular type of leaf, the world has coffee.
The case is proven for tourism, but what about getting here.
Gebremariam speaks boldly about his airline, but does the book match its cover? On first glance, just walking into the headquarters at Bole Airport in Addis Ababa, you get a sense of provenance. An old Douglas Dakota, one of the first in the Ethiopian fleet stands proudly on a grass verge, whilst black and white images of Ethiopia’s early years line the stairways of the executive offices.
But this is no airline living in the past. The airline campus is huge, with state of the art maintenance hangars, a training academy where some 4,000 students a year live full time, a 24 hour catering arm which cooks and supplies 14,000 meals and over 1,000 bottles of wine to 52 daily flights. It’s an impressive set of statistics, and I as I toured the base I could see those stats in action. A lone parked Dreamliner, her undercarriage shamelessly open to a team of male and female engineers pouring over her innards, over in maintenance, a single jet engine is meticulously investigated via a microscopic camera in almost library silence.
Donning an unflattering white cap and coat I accompany Sam, the manager of catering operations around his kitchens pausing at one station whilst an array of traditional Ethiopian stews are prepared, accompanied by the famous Injera flat bread. Sam promises me one of these on my meal home, but I can’t wait that long and cannily steal a slice to eat while nobody notices- delicious!
Like all airlines, the real proof is in the passenger experience and with 8 new Boeing 787 Dreamliners on order, together with 14 Airbus A350-900s and 4 more Boeing 737-800s with Sky Interior that experience will be state of the art.
My own experience of Ethiopian’s Cloud Nine Business Class was a triumph, even though it was on the older 777, the sleeper seats and 15 inch screens kept me very relaxed, whilst good old Sam came up trumps with an epic traditional meal of Doro Wot chicken stew, Gomen Kale and of course the legendary Injera, served by a flight attendant in traditional dress. It doesn’t get better than that.
I’m rather looking forward to what Tewolde Gebremariam has in store for Ethiopia. This could be the start of a very long friendship.
Ethiopian flies daily to and from London and daily services to 48 African destinations and very short connections through its Addis Ababa hub, Ethiopian offers the shortest total travel time to its customers. Lead in return fares start at £481.00, inclusive of all taxes, bookable online at www.ethiopianairlines.com; telephone 0800 635 0644.
All images (c) Andy Mossack