Face to Face with Yonaiel Belete, Operations Director at the Kuriftu Resorts and Water Park,Bishoftu/Debra Zeit Ethiopia
May we know you Sir?
I have been working in this company for six years as the Operations Director, but I have been working here six years before that. So, I have been here from the very beginning when we had 18 rooms, but you can see there is a lot of growth. In fact, we just inaugurated an additional 61 rooms and another 131 beds to this property so that we can accommodate more people because we are gearing up to become a power house especially in inter-African tourism. Obviously, we have not always been a very stronger contender, but we have always showed a very strong promise.
Now, we are trying to raise the bar, invest our ideas and finances to areas within our country so that we can develop because there is a lot of incentives to grow within this country, especially from the tourism angle, it depends on who wants to be the risk taker. Being the first entry into the market is always the scary part. We have many beautiful locations, but unfortunately, people are afraid to take the risk in terms of investment to create destinations.
The Destination is regarded as natural here, but you have to bring infrastructure and investments. Presently, we have about 12 business units and for a few of them, we have to bring in expertise from abroad, but most of them, we do it ourselves.
When you look at this location, it is more of organic and not mechanical. When my father was trying to build this place at the beginning, he received a lot of rejections from the government. They wondered why they should give him a prime property on the highland to build by a lake, but he had to organise a familiarisation trip for government officials to visit several countries so that they could see, including to Mombasa in Kenya. So, when they came back, they then agreed that he could proceed. Since then, we have been able to represent our country in a very unique way.
What are the prospective markets of locating this business in this place and what is your projection of tourism growth in Ethiopia?
Let’s look at the projection right now; this particular place is built to mainly take care of the local market within our own country. This is also because Addis Ababa was not so attractive then as it is right now as a tourism destination because not many people wanted to come here for a night. So, this location was actually made for people who live inside Ethiopia. Not that we should be limited to that because now, Addis Ababa is investing in more parks like Unity Park, Friendship Park, Museums and others.
So, with these packages, I see a lot of people combining it with our other locations. We are not limited in terms of scope because we have to take care of people’s needs in terms of events and others. I think for the future if everything goes on well especially with the Covid-19 pandemic and with the proper guidelines and if people are comfortable, I think there is a lot of potential for tourism to grow especially for Addis Ababa and a lot of cities that are close to it. But, as I have said earlier, taking the risk and investing in this form of a business will take some time because of the risk.
Apart from this resort overlooking the lake, what other unique features do you have here?
This location is actually one of the seven crater lakes. The lake is not actually meant for swimming, it is meant for Kayaking and when you go Kayaking, you can see a lot of birds. It’s more like a natural scene and it’s more quiet here. We also have our spa facilities for massaging. People can come here to relax, especially couples who can use the spa facilities. We also have the cinema, but we are planning on upgrading it in the next month also so that we can have better sound system and others. This particular facility is for people to have a more comfortable scene. They can watch movies at night. Obviously, everyone can watch movies on their smart phones, but the cinemas still have a very pleasurable experience.
In addition to that we have the water park, which is a big attraction to families especially for those who never had exposure for such water Parks. We are also planning to expand the park so that we can stay more competitive and add more to the needs of the customers. So, we have clients from the African Unions (AU), United Nations (UN) and a lot of the non-governmental organisations and others.
We also have a wide range of restaurants here that take care of different types of dishes. We are also expanding the land areas and we intend to hold music concerts here. Music is a big culture and we intend to collaborate with a lot of people all over Africa and the World.
What impact does the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic have on your services and what stage of recovery are you at?
When Covid-19 pandemic broke out in the first quarter of 2020, it affected a major part of our business and we could only operate one to two percent of our capacities for about eight months. We employ quite a lot of people. We have hundreds of workers in this facility and we have continued to construct the space in the past 16 years. As it is, we have about three hundred construction workers and a lot of people depend on our business as a company. By March of last year, we had very low business transaction, except for spa that had low capacity as people also come here for haircut. It was so tough for us.
But, thankfully, we were able to survive the plague and by September, which is Ethiopian’s New Year when the entire team came back. By end of September last year, even when everyone was trying to adapt to the Covid-19 regulations, it was obvious that the entire world was tired. Nobody could contain anybody any longer, especially when it comes to hospitality and spending money.
People could not travel as they used as a lot of restrictions were there globally. So, people decided they could spend their money internally. So, that is where we benefited as a company. We focused our facilities on domestic tourism and people can take away their kids out for even one day holiday. That is a great blessing to us in disguise. Within the period, we were able to add 61 more rooms as I mentioned earlier.
What is the ratio between the local and the international markets for your company?
Before the outbreak of Covid-19, it used to be between 20 and 80 per cent for international and local, respectively for this location, but for other locations outside this facility, we have higher number of international market.
The fact is the market is shrunk and I hope that we can increase this number especially from the intra-African setting to something more appreciable. To grow out of Ethiopia of course, we have to focus on the international community. We have tried a lot of things; we used to work with Ethiopian Holidays for about six years.
How much of cooperation do you have with other companies?
My father is a part of the Board of Tourism for Ethiopia and he also has close ties with the Ethiopian Tourism Organisation as well. But, because of our current situation as a country now, there has not been much result achieved, but for the future, the plan is to collaborate with others, especially international organisations like AKWAABA Travel Market in West Africa
How does the management ensure absolute security and safety for its clients in this facility?
Since we started construction in this facility years ago, there has not been any incident of snake recorded here, the only thing you will see here are the lizards, which are known to be in this habitat and they are not poisonous to humans. Inside the water itself, it is just only tilapia fish because the lake was created when the Government filled it with Water. You can’t even have catfish here.
The crocodiles are in the Southern parts of Ethiopia and those ones are quite large and they are actually very cool tourism attractions.
When it comes to safety as a whole, we have been expanding a lot from 18 rooms, to 26, 50, 89 and now 140 rooms. What we do is that we regularly have a meeting with our General Manager on the issue of security and we have been adding more security gadgets to further boost security in this facility.
On access control, we are looking at many ways whereby we can boost the confidence of our clients and we are doing some Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSRs) with the local people. We also have regular meetings with the local government in this area in order to boost safety. We are however lucky that we don’t have security issues in this area particularly.
How much of contribution is the Ethiopian Government doing to enhance tourism as a whole in this country and what areas do you think the government needs to do more in the sector?
What I am seeing is that the government has put in a lot of emphasis on infrastructure development, Addis Ababa in particular. Before now, there was no green space for people to walk around them. Also, the government is partnering with a lot of private investors to improve tourism and allocate more space for people who are willing to take the risk to develop infrastructure. Right now, there are 10 locations with tax incentives. With that you don’t have to pay profit tax so that you can actually build your resorts. Ours is actually one them.
I can see now that the government is really pushing for tourism growth and has really invested in three locations in the country; South, Elephant Sanctuary, they are building more roads to get people there and also moving people to invest in lots of tourism activities and the third one is in Golgora.
They are trying to make people invest in a lot of hubs; Addis Ababa is not the only place you think of when you come to Ethiopia.
That is a great positive contribution so far and may be one thing they need to do more is to actively keep on promoting tourism and may be allow other members into the market by allowing neighbouring countries interested in Ethiopian tourism industry to have a chance to look into other locations because we can’t always do it by ourselves. We need to allow other people to see the benefits that can be reaped from working in Ethiopia as a whole.
What is your impression about social media in promoting tourism in Ethiopia?
Social media wise, we tend to collaborate with media influencers, especially the African ones because we think this is very key in developing our brand. There was a Nigerian social media influencer that came to our location about four months ago and recorded a lot of activities. Also, we have a Ghanaian here today who we invited to come to Ethiopia for the same purpose because we are trying to reach out to a lot of social media influencers to attract more clients to us. We hope that others follow suit in this direction.
How much of tourism do the local people explore in Ethiopia?
Currently, we have a big surge especially among the younger generation that is between the ages of 20 to 30 years old. People now use the social media, especially the Telegram groups for discussions. People are using more of roads these days to get to some locations and they are also using Ethiopian Airlines to get to far destinations. But, I also think it depends on the private organisations so ensure that they have more accommodation for these people to go to these locations.
You can see them go to some locations for a day for hiking because there is no accommodation. So, this shows there is a lot of potential and if we can add some accommodations, it can attract a lot of the older generation because they want something that is safer, cooler, more accommodating and reliable. I think that is the grey area in the gap that I am seeing right now.