Is Ethiopia safe to travel to? When people think of travelling to Ethiopia the question of safety and security always comes up thanks to outdated stereotypes of civil war, poverty and famine. Is it too dangerous to travel in Ethiopia? Are travellers in danger if they go? The truth of the matter is the reality is very different to what people assume.
Ethiopia has had its fair share of turbelence and violence over the years, like most countries around the world, and would be the first to admit that this has led to a blanket warning for travellers to stay away from some government advisories and the mass media generally portraying Ethiopia as unsafe, dangerous and to be avoided at all costs.
But is this fair?
Yes on one hand Ethiopia has been the victim of domestic terrorism, especially at political gatherings such as the recent explosion at a political rally, and has declared states of emergency in the past due to political demonstrations.
However it is basic travel safety advice to avoid political demonstrations wherever possible and move away from them as safely and quickly as you can if you find yourself caught up in one, and it is important to remember that these are worrying and horrible incidents, but they are still just singular one off incidents, and incidents like the explosion can happen anywhere at any time.
Most of the rest of the country is very safe.
Fuelled by tales of a war with Eritrea, a war incidentally that may be finally coming to a peaceful end, and recent stories of civil unrest and declared states of emergency in Ethiopia from the mass media, travellers to Ethiopia are often bombarded with questions from concerned loved ones about their safety, or succumb to those worries themselves and decide not to go.
They let fear of the unknown dictate their decisions.
But my own journey through Ethiopia was a world away from what the media would have you believe, and although I automatically took the same reasonable and common sense safety precautions that I would anywhere in the world, including at home, I never once felt unsafe, threatened or in any danger whatsoever.
Ethiopia is not an active conflict zone. It is not a country hit with famine or civil war or civil unrest. It is in general terms no more dangerous than any major Western country.
In fact I encountered a country where I felt extremely welcomed as a visitor, people who were friendly and open, and even an old lady who tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘be careful’ as she pointed to my pocket with my wallet inside where I had left the zip undone. She thought I could lose it if it fell out when I sat down.
These are not the interactions from a dangerous country where travellers should fear to tread.
I experienced a world where people were genuinely helpful and friendly to me as a traveller, eager to learn more about me and encourage more travellers to follow in my wake.
This Ethiopia I encountered was hardly the den of iniquity or the war torn, riot filled danger zone that had been portrayed by the media or the official government warnings. This wasn’t the dangerous country that so many people who have never even been assume it is.
But then it isn’t always a logical or rational thought process that leads to this conclusion, it is one fuelled by media depictions of civil unrest, of stereotypes of famine still left over from almost 40 years ago. These are often the thought processes of people who view Africa as a country, not a continent, and cannot differentiate the stereotypes from each distinct and individual country.
The official advice.
Of course the official advice does not help matters and barely reflects what the reality of the situation is actually like in Ethiopia.
The Smart Traveller site from the Australian government of course takes an extreme stance and advises all travellers to avoid completely certain sections of the country and seriously reconsider travelling everywhere else. The US Embassy in Ethiopia is less panicked about the situation but still advises extreme caution due to a high risk of terrorism or civil unrest, and the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office takes a similar but at least slightly more reasonable and detailed response.
If anyone listened to any of the official advice, no one would ever travel to Ethiopia at all.
These warnings are due apparently to supposed high threat levels of terrorism, civil unrest and high levels of crime committed against travellers, as well as tensions on the border regions between Ethiopia and other countries.
But what is the reality of the situation? Well let’s just look at these warnings in a logical manner and think them through.
So, is Ethiopia safe to travel to? Yes, absolutely.
Of course there are small parts of the country around the border regions which are relatively more risky than the majority of the country because of political tensions with neighbouring countries and do have travel advisories against them, but that really is only a small part of the country and the absolute majority of it, including Addis Ababa and the majority of areas with major tourist attractions or national parks that most people will want to visit are absolutely safe with no travel restrictions from the UK government.
It may be advisable – and general common sense to use caution, keep your ear to the ground and use your own reasonable judgement if you want to head to these border regions that have advisories against them, that does not make it specifically dangerous to travel in these regions, it just means you should be more cautious. But then again most travellers will have no need to head to the border regions at all, and for tourists just visiting the rest of the country this is likely to have no impact on them at all.
For travelers heading into the Danakil Depression it is advised that they go along with an armed escort, that is fair enough. That is just an ultra cautious reaction to a potential threat of banditry or trouble with neighbouring states because any trips there are venturing near the border region. That’s it.
There have been reports in the past of very specific incidents occuring where tourists have been killed, but again it is important to remember that these incidents are noteable because of their rarity. Singular incidents, in many years of many travellers visiting the region.
In most cases these really are cases of terrible things just happening to good people for no good reason.
There is a slightly increased risk of becoming a victim of some form of crime in these very specific, small and isolated regions but steps have been taken to reduce that risk significantly such as armed escorts, and there really is no need to look into it any deeper than that.
Armed escorts are also there for your protection, and more importantly the protection of natural wildlife in national parks such as the Simien National Park. Again, this is nothing to be concerned about and is at worst a precaution.
There are often advisories against potential political protests and demonstrations and advice to avoid them wherever possible, but it is so important to remember that this is basic prudent advice for something that can happen anywhere in the world – including the UK and Europe for example – and staying away from potential flashpoints is just common sense!
And like anywhere there is also a potential for further states of emergency to be declared just as there has been in the past, again, just as there is in any country in the world, but in general terms that has not restricted travel for backpackers or travellers or made travel any more risky for them. It is an internal political matter between the authorities and demonstrators and at worst has caused travellers an inconvenience with warnings to avoid certain areas at certain times.
There is no reason to allow a potential risk to become a problem, just keep your eye on local news and government warnings and act accordingly.
And the constant warnings about terrorism from official government advisories should never be a reason not to travel somewhere. Almost everywhere is a target for terrorist attacks and almost everywhere has severe warnings. The whole point of terrorism is that it can happen anywhere at any time, including your home countries and the West, and refusing to travel somewhere due to the potential of it happening is ridiculous, it is giving those terrorist cowards exactly what they want and allowing them to win. They want you to be afraid, so don’t be.
If the worst does happen when you are travelling, and this is good advice for anywhere in the world, then make sure you are informed and have the right knowledge and information to keep yourself safe, stay calm and rational and get out of the vicinity as soon as possible, but no matter what, never be afraid and remember that any attack like this is extremely statistically rare, and really can happen anywhere.
Is Ethiopia really dangerous?
But all of this does not make Ethiopia an unsafe place to visit. Quite the opposite in fact. Most – or in fact any – incidents are notable because of their relative rarity and shock value. A little known sentence in the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth Office Guidance, hidden under all the dire warnings of doom and gloom, is this:
Around 20,000 British nationals visit Ethiopia every year. Most visits are trouble free.
And it is the last part of that important little fact that most people tend to forget.
This is the problem with official advisories, they err on the extreme side of caution which does not reflect a true state of how safe any given country is and usually just adds to the scaremongering instead of delivering non impartial advice, which is what they are meant to do.
People tend to concentrate on the headline of mass panic, instead of using official advice as a benchmark to delve deeper and do their own research, which is what they are meant to do.
Ethiopia currently has a score of 79 on the Law and Order index score results according to the Gallup Global Law and Order Report. That is only very slightly less than the UK, more than some parts of Europe and significantly higher than average. What does that mean? Well it means that in terms of safety Ethiopia is very close to UK levels of safety. That isn’t perfect of course but it is still provably and demonstrably safe with a relatively low risk of becoming the victim of any type of crime.
Does this really sound like somewhere you should avoid visiting out of concerns for your safety?
The truth is, Ethiopia is very safe.
I travelled throughout the country and did not feel in danger once. The welcome I received from most people were friendly and gregarious, and I saw no evidence that Ethiopia was any more dangerous than anywhere at home or in the West.
Yes of the risk of petty crime such as pickpocketing or opportunistic theft is always there just as it is anywhere else in the world, but use your common sense, take reasonable precautions for your own safety and security and you can reduce that risk to almost zero. More serious or violent crime is actually very rare, even more so when against Western travellers.
The more you take control of your own fate and the more you take steps to reduce the (already low) personal risk to yourself with the right knowledge and preparation, the safer you will be.
The biggest problems travellers are likely to face are being overcharged by a Bajaj (the Ethiopian word for the auto rickshaw or tuk tuk) driver or mobbed by touts and beggars, especially young children, and especially nearer touristy spots or in more rural, out of the way areas.
Is this annoying? Yes, sometimes, they can be very persistent.
Is it dangerous? No.
A lot of travellers are put off by this behaviour and can be extremely intimidated by it, I get it, I do, but it is all about perception. Just because it is intimidating it doesn’t make it dangerous.
The best way to deal with this, as always, is to ignore it if you can or treat it with patience and good humour if you can’t. Whatever you do don’t give in to any calls for money or gifts, it will just encourage the cycle of begging to tourists who will be seen as walking ATMs. You get this behaviour anywhere in the world, especially in developing nations, and it is nothing new, and whilst it can grate from time to time it is certainly not dangerous.
Ethiopia is safe.
Let me be very clear on this, Ethiopia in general is not a dangerous country to travel to. In fact as long as you take reasonable personal precautions just like you would at home it is a very safe country to travel in by any standards.
So by all means listen to to official advice and take heed of it, that is the sensible thing to do, but look a little bit deeper as well and use your own judgement. Decide for yourself what the personal level of risk is to you as an individual and takes steps to reduce it.
But whatever you do, don’t ever dismiss Ethiopia as a dangerous destination because of what the mass media says or any preconceived misconceptions, you will be doing it a great disservice and missing out on what is one of the most fascinating and beautiful countries in Africa.
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This article was written in partnership with Ethiopian Airlines, the Ethiopian Tourism Organisation and the Ethiopian Embassy of London. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.