Ato Habteselassie Tafesse, the pioneer of Ethiopia’s tourism industry, and credited with coining the catchphrase, “Thirteen months of sunshine”, which has been the motto of the Ethiopian Tourism Organization for several decades has passed away at the age of 91, two weeks after suffering a stroke. He had been seriously ill on a respirator in Addis Ababa’s Balcha’s hospital and died after his condition deteriorated sharply.
An Extraordinary Childhood
Habteselassie’s father, Tafesse Habte Michael was a Fitawrari, a prominent noble in the early years of Haile Selassie’s reign. As one who moved in the progressive circle of the day, Fitawrari Tafesse was member of the association known as “Yefith kenat” and “Agelglot mahebere”, founded by Hakim Workneh Eshete and had as its major objective the education of freed slaves. During the Italian invasion, he left Ethiopia and fled to France and Habte Selassie had to be separated from his family when he was only two years old, and was taken to Greece by a refugee Russian family. The little boy was adopted as the son of the couple who already had a son and a daughter of their own. As he was taken away from his mother in infancy, he had to suckle the breast of his adoptive mother. Athens of course did not prove the safe haven the family hoped it would. Habteselassie was enrolled in a school in Athens. Greece was then occupied jointly by German and Italy and so the economy was in tatters. Hunger was rife. The school where he was enrolled was turned into a military camp for the occupying German troops. The family was in great trouble and there was little to eat. The couple, thus found themselves in such reduced circumstances, had nowhere to turn but to depend on the meager means he helped provide by hawking cigars and sugar. Eventually Greece was liberated and independence was restored but communist insurgents took up arms and stability was disrupted.
“I can still see it very clearly,” Habteselassie said in interview. “The police firing on the crowd from the roof of the parliament in Syntagma Square. The young men and women lying in pools of blood, everyone rushing down the stairs in total shock.”
Thousands of people were arrested, including Habteselassie himself. “The inmates there were entitled to a weekly food from their families. As for my family, they were not even aware of my incarceration. Even if they were to know of the fate that befell me, they had no means to send provision for me. Some inmates kindly disposed to me leftover of the food. I stayed in prison for two years,” he recalled.
My Greek friend who was imprisoned with me managed to be freed by his mother who happened to be head of the International Red Cross. This friend told his mother about me and people from Red Cross drove their vehicle waving a Red Cross flag went up to prison and asked the jailors to set free an Abyssinian who was captured by mistake. He said all are Greek and there was no foreigner. The Red Cross people then asked for prisoners to be lined up. The woman then said singling me out ‘This is the foreigner I spoke of’. The jail official said ‘we assumed he was a Greek citizen. After I was released, I went straight to my foster family who welcomed me with great joy and relief,” Habteselassie would later recall.
He continued his education, working on pastime, running errands, cleaning and opening the gate. “One day there was a knock on the gate, upon opening it, I saw a black man standing before me. This was the first time I saw a black man. I run to my foster family and told me that there was a black man outside. My foster parents walked out to greet the man and on meeting him there was a warm greeting and hugging. Turning to me they said ‘He is your father’. I retorted ‘I don’t know of a black father. You are the only parents I know’ backing off from the black man. Fitawerari Tafesse approached me in a conciliatory manner but I threaten to pick up a rock. After much pleading and entreaty on his part, I was prevailed to introduce myself to him,” he said.
In 1947, Habteselassie came back to Ethiopia and reunited with his family. “I came to know of my mother and my brother. Since I couldn’t understand a word of Amharic, I had great difficulty to communicate with my family,” he said. He attended Teferi Mekonnen School for a year mainly to learn Amharic language. A year later, Habte’s father was appointed Ethiopian Ambassador to Egypt and the young Habteselassie moved to Alexandria with the entire family. He completed his senior high school in Alexandria, where he also learnt French. In 1954, Habte left for the United States and entered Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and graduated with B.A degree in international relations. “Upon returning from the USA, I presented myself to the Emperor as was the custom. Having ascertained the kind of training I received, he arranged for me to be employed in the ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he recalled.
At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he was head of the Press and Information Department, and he produced a daily bulletin.
(This picture was taken from the wedding reception of Habtesleassie Tafesse and Woizero Muluembet Mesfin December 1959. Menen magazine.)
Starting the tourism sector from the scratch
It was while working there that he started thinking about the country’s almost non-existent tourism sector and approached Emperor Haile Selassie with the idea of setting up a special organ to launch the sector. The Emperor agreed and Habteselassie Tafesse was given greenlight to move from the ministry of foreign affairs to an office under the prime minister’s office. Despite lack of money, he started putting all his energies into developing the tourism industry, as well as establishing and running Ethiopian Tourist Trading Organization. In an effort to raise the much-needed funds, Habteselassie opened duty free shop, with 25,000 USD that he personally borrowed and headed to Aden for shopping. The first round of items were sold instantly. Ethiopia Today magazine then wrote that the shop was attributed to the high level of dedication and entrepreneurial skills of Habte Selassie Taffesse, who promptly caught the opportunity created by the growing number of diplomatic community in Addis Ababa. In few years’ time that followed, the company has expanded its business engagements to handicrafts and souvenirs production, car rental. The weekly magazine Newsweek, featured the Ethiopian Tourist Trading as the largest duty-free operation in the world, which was a great source of pride for Habteselassie. One of his important tasks then was the creation and marketing to tourists of the “Ethiopian Historic Route,” which to this date has remained as the most popular segment of Ethiopia’s tourist attractions.
In 1965 a duty free warehouse was opened at Assab Port. In 1967 the Ethiopian Tourist Trading Enterprise became a department under Tourism and Hotel Administration within the Ministry of Natural Resources Development. Same year, it became part of the Ministry of Trade and Tourism, and assumed the name of Ethiopian Tourist Trading Enterprise. Habteselassie was named as his head. During those years until the down of the revolution, the pioneer continued his innovation and excellence to promote the bourgeoning industry. He coined the phrase, “Thirteen Months of Sunshine”, in referring to the Ethiopian Calendar, which in turn provoked the imagination of visitors.
Before he started the huge ambition of launching the tourism business and promotion work, Habteselassie felt he needed to discover the country himself. As early as 1960’s, he set foot in almost all parts of Ethiopia. “I did ascending mountains, swimming across rivers, and the swamps and jungle. I trekked to the highlands, and a journey in a Land Rover. I covered all the core sites of historical interest in the highlands. Also through to little-known regions. I visited more than 100 islands in the Red Sea, between Eritrea and Djibouti. I went to the border area, Gambella and Benshangul,” he once told an interviewer.
During his trips, he carried a camera and photographed historical sites, landscape, and flora and fauna, ethnic people. Some of the pictures were printed on posters, leaflets and banners intended to promote the country, with the catchphrase, “13 Months of Sunshine”. Some of the pictures were too progressive for the taste of some Ethiopians who found them to be nude or semi-clothed. So much so that a certain higher official complained to the Emperor, who fortunately understood the intention and defended Habteselassie.
However, with the coming of the military regime in 1974 the bustling tourism industry had been affected by security problems. Habteselassie had been detained, and remained behind bars for seven years. He was made an adviser to the Tourism Commission immediately on his release in 1981 when the military regime decided to revive the tourism business.
(Photo taken by Anteneh Aklilu at the recognition ceremony by the Ministry of Culture & Tourism.)
Habteselassie remained active and prolific in the tourism sector well after his retirement. In February 2011, he was recognized as “the Father of Ethiopian Tourism” by the Ministry of Culture & Tourism.
Habteselassie was married to Muluembet Mesfin, the daughter of the notable official Ras Mesfin. They have two sons and a daughter, Solomon, Michael and Saba.