The Father of Ethiopian Tourism

Habteselassie Tafesse (1927-2017)

Ethiopia mourns the passing of Habteselassie Tafesse, the country’s iconic son, made famous by his 13 Months of Sunshine branding of the country.  

Ato Habteselassie was born in Addis Ababa to excellent parents who tried all they could to make his bread buttered well, who reading the danger signals of the mid 1930s as Mussolini fixed his attention on Ethiopia, and wanting the best for their baby son, sent him out of the country. He spent the next fifteen years of his life in Greece, brought up by a Russian step mother and a Greek stepfather.

Ato Habteselassie’s father was a civil servant, serving the imperial government and upon liberation, was appointed minister and ambassador. Ato Habteselassie completed his secondary education in Cairo rubbing shoulders with the region’s future leaders and then travelled to the United States to study government public relations. Upon completion of his studies, he was summonsed home and began working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the media and communications department. His duties included developing international press cuttings for the consumption of the foreign minister and entertaining visitors to the country.

Ato Habteselassie contributed enormously to the country of his birth and he took delight in sharing in its growth and development. He is well known for remarking that had he been given the opportunity to implement his strategic vision from the very beginning, the Ethiopian tourism industry would have received billions of dollars year-on-year. Despite this sentiment, he was showered with awards from different organizations for his distinguished achievements and his outstanding contribution to develop the tourism industry in Ethiopia, and preserve Ethiopian history and culture.

While he was working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Emperor HaileSelassie invited him to his office for a one-on-one meeting. In the middle of their discussion, the Emperor told him that he had appointed him as organizer of Ethiopia’s nascent tourism organization. He was astounded as he did not have any idea of what the task entailed. He told the Emperor that this was the case, but when he saw that he was not making any headway, he accepted the appointment. Rolling up his sleeves, he got to work and set about building an industry from scratch. As he was excellent at speaking many languages (Russian, Greek, French, English, Arabic) he could communicate easily with visitors from all over the world. To the last, Amharic challenged him though because he had not learnt it from infancy.

His iconic brand for Ethiopia – 13 Months of Sunshine – reflecting the Julian calendar that Ethiopia follows and which includes ‘Pagame’ the short month of five or six days at the end of the year, was something that he was unaware of. When he learnt about the calendar from a friend, he made up his mind to use it to Ethiopia’s advantage.

In due course, he designed a poster entitled ‘Thirteen Months Of Sunshine’ and after that they did not stop coming off the presses. These imaginative and captivating posters captured the attention of hundreds of thousands of visitors over the decades, coming from all over the world to Ethiopia. On one occasion, he was explaining the content of the different posters he had created, to the emperor. One of them had a picture of a woman with unclothed breasts. It was attention-grabbing. After the Emperor gazed at it for some time, he asked Ato Habteselassie why he had taken the picture of the woman. Ato Habteselassie replied that tourists were drawn to this kind of picture as it expressed the natural beauty of Ethiopia.  The emperor considered this for a while and then replied: “I have overheard that you are also crazy about breasts very much more than tourists…”

Of course, what Ato Habteselassie understood was that the biggest wealth of Ethiopia was its people and its wonderful weather. Following the introduction of the different posters, numbers of tourists began flowing into the country. On one occasion, an American government group visited Ethiopia (Ato Habteselassie assiduously looking after them) to view the country’s agricultural production. Impressed with what they found, they returned to the United States to report back to the president who publicly declared that “Ethiopia is the richest country in the world. Ethiopia is the bread basket of Africa which can feed billions of people.”

During his leisure time, Ato Habteselassie created many projects to create job opportunities particularly in the coffee sector. He also promoted the historical heritage of Ethiopia, producing cutlery collections in various shapes and forms that celebrated Ethiopia’s iconic symbols.

In March 2017, at the 4th Tourism Transformation Council’s meeting, Ato Habteselassie’s many achievements were recognized by the Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and he was given the title of “Father of Ethiopian Tourism”.

Ato Habteselasssie’s philosophy was that “everybody has something to offer if they are given the chance and listened to. ”His wish was to witness a dramatic change in Ethiopia’s tourism industry, where millions and not just hundreds of thousands of visitors would come to the country.  And importantly, he wished for peace and harmony among the people of Ethiopia and its neighbors.” To many Ethiopians, Ato Habteselassie Tafesse is a role model, and a man of inspiration and action, and he shall always be remembered as a pioneer of the Ethiopian Tourism Industry and the man behind the “13 Months Of Sunshine”.

Ato Habteselassie Tafesse, passed away after suffering a stroke on August 9, 2017. He was laid to rest at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Rest in peace, son of Ethiopia.

Adapted from an interview given on Herald Guest

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