Addis Hiking charges an average 600Br for a one-day hiking trip. The group above is seen celebrating during a trip to Erer, one of the many popular destinations for hikers from the capital.

An application developer who has recently taken up hiking to get some exercise, Mignot Tariku's first experience with her new hobby came in November of last year. After the COVID-19-induced national state of emergency was lifted, she began to use hiking to relieve job stress.

One of her friends from her work shared a hiking group on Telegram, the social media platform, that led them to plan a hike on one Sunday morning.

"It was a different and unforgettable experience," she told Fortune.

Mignot, 27, and her friends have gone hiking at least once a month since, and the experience has helped her develop an appreciation for places and people that she would otherwise not have.

"I thought it was a luxurious activity," said Mignot. "It's mostly foreign tourists that come to Ethiopia for adventurous things like hiking and trekking."

She also found it to be a source of much-needed relaxation after spending an average of eight or more hours sitting at her computer on the weekdays.

"My job can be very stressful," said Mignot. "Hiking gives me the time to meditate and relax in natural places."

Hiking and trekking are closely associated with journeys and pilgrimages to different monasteries and religious centres in Ethiopia. It is common to see colourful posters on taxi windows or electric poles promoting trips to various religious sites such as Tsadkane Maryam and Debre Libanos or Zeber.

A hiking group makes their way along a trail. The activity has steadily been gaining popularity over the last decade or so.

Feven Endayehu, a friend of Mignot's, used to make pilgrimages to such monasteries and churches, usually during fasting seasons. However, she joined a hiking group last year before the pandemic broke out and has noticed that more and more people are taking part in hiking expeditions.

Hiking organisers have steadily been growing in number in the capital, catering to the needs of people like Mignot and Feven.

Promotions and marketing through social media platforms play a large role in the growing popularity of hiking. The business has expanded steadily since it first caught the attention of urbanites around a decade ago.

Addis Hiking is reputed to be the first to introduce hiking tours as a leisure activity to these urbanites. Binyam Shifa, the founder of Addis Hiking, is considered a pioneer in the hiking business, first organising trips eight years ago while working as a gym trainer.

On his first hike, Binyam took seven people, free-of-charge, to Entoto hills. It became a business the second time around when he took 30 people to the same site, charging each 100 Br, including expenses for snacks, lunch and water.

Hiking is growing popular due to people gaining better awareness about it and because hiking service providers are joining the nascent industry, according to Binyam.

Addis Hiking now has over 100 regular clients and 500 casuals willing to pay an average of 600 Br for a one-day hiking trip. If it includes camping, the cost goes as high as 2,000 Br a day.

Two years later, Mikiyas Tetemke entered the industry out of frustration at seeing that many Ethiopians from cities with better financial leverage tend to tour overseas to Dubai, Bangkok or the United States. A radio host at Gojo Music, it baffled him that they were not taking advantage of what "we have around and nearby."

Four years ago, he was doing hiking not as a business but to encourage domestic tourism. In February 2020, he registered Gojo Hiking with the Ministry of Culture & Tourism and began to organise trips within a 200Km radius of Addis Abeba. Some of the destinations where Gojo offers trips for clients like Mignot and Feven include Gulele Botanical Gardens, Mount Erer and Wenchi Lake nearby, and farther away to Menilik Meskot near Debre Sina town, and Amora Gedel.

Since the national state of emergency was lifted late last year, Gojo and other hiking service providers have witnessed a considerable spurt in growth for both hiking and camping.

People look for places to get out more now following months of sitting indoors, Mikias observed. He sees that growing and regular promotions on social media have helped dispel the misconception that hiking and camping are expensive and luxurious. His company charges clients from 600 Br to 1,000 Br for daily hiking that includes lunch and snacks.

"People in the cities live in a polluted environment," said Mikias. "The air is thick with smoke, and the streets are noisy and hectic. People need an activity that can help them get away from all that."

The industry is new and upcoming. Not much is available in data to show its size or even the number of operators in the market. The Ministry of Culture & Tourism did not have a domestic tourism department up until last year. This shows how little focus the government has been giving to domestic tourism, despite Ethiopia having huge potential geographically and demographically, those who follow the tourism industry note.

One such person is Ayalew Sisay (PhD), who once ran the Addis Abeba City Administration Tourism Commission before leaving public office. He now works as a tour operation director at Chora Tours but could not conceal how surprised he was upon learning that hiking was growing to be such a popular pastime.

"The organisers should be encouraged and appreciated by the federal and regional government tourism bureaus," Ayalew said. "They are contributing toward enhancing domestic as well as health tourism."

Little is known about who the biggest operators are in the market. However, a company known as Ethiopia Community Trekking organises two-week trips to several destinations across Ethiopia for 3,330 dollars a person. An 11-day adventurous trip to the Danakil Depression costs travelers – mostly from overseas – a little over 1,700 dollars.

Biniyam Taye, a team coordinator at Happy Feet Hiking, saw the business growing fast ever since the measures against COVID-19 were relaxed and increases in demand, mostly due to growing interactions on social media, particularly on Telegram.

What led the company he works for to enter the market tells a story of such expansion. Happy Feet started hiking services as part of fundraising efforts for a fistula rehabilitation centre for women near Burayu on Addis Abeba's outskirts. Happy Feet involves members of the communities at destinations they take clients, hiring them to provide catering services and as tour guides as well as translators.

"The roles of domestic tourism are many," Ayalew told Fortune. "It produces social and cultural benefits for the local population who might not otherwise be able to experience their natural endowment."

On the clientele side, many who go for hikes do so for reasons related to health, according to Biniyam. His team sends checklists to remind the clients to bring hiking shoes and first aid kits and to fully charge their electronic devices.

"We urge them to wear weather-appropriate clothing," he told Fortune.

Ayalew believes for countries blessed with spectacular ethnic diversity like Ethiopia, hiking provides travelers with the opportunity to build their understanding about themselves and build up and strengthen national fraternity. Ethiopia's tourism industry is cyclical and seasonal; activities like hiking can help boost the numbers during the off-seasons, according to Ayalew.

Some hikers, however, tend to show interest solely based on a location's suitability for snapping a couple of photos or videos for social media, Feven noticed.

"They're missing the point," she says. "Hiking is all about avoiding the hustle and bustle of city life."

PUBLISHED ON Mar 27,2021 [ VOL 21 , NO 1091]

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