Ethiopia tour did not go as planned

By Gail Riba
This item appears on page 23 of the December 2013 issue.

My husband, John, my daughter, Dorie, and I booked a private tour of Ethiopia for Jan. 16-Feb. 1, 2013, with someone whom friends of ours had used two years before, Daniel Damtew Aseffa of Glory Ethiopia Travel & Tours (P.O. Box 15303, Comoros St., Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; phone +251 11 860 1099,

After speaking to Mr. Damtew via Skype and sending emails back and forth, we paid him by means of wire transfers a total of $9,194 for the three of us.

We met Mr. Damtew in Addis Ababa, in central Ethiopia, and traveled to and around the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia with him, Jan. 16-26. 

The minivan in which we traveled was the only non-4-wheel-drive vehicle we saw in the South Omo. The “Check Engine” light on the dashboard was lit from day one; Mr. Damtew said he’d had it checked and it was just the light that was broken. One back window did not open at all and the other opened only halfway. One back door did not open. He claimed that the brakes squeaked because of new brake pads.

On the first day, in Addis Ababa he checked us into the Union Hotel, which was not on our itinerary. When we objected, he said that it was better than the Adot Tina. It was not, as we found out when we stayed in the Adot Tina later in the trip.

The Union Hotel was located in an out-of-the-way neighborhood with noisy dogs and roosters. In our room, the floors and bathtub were filthy.

On day two, our minivan’s air-conditioning went. The temperature outside was in the 90s and the terrain was very dusty.

We arrived in southern Ethiopia on Jan. 18, and that’s when our problems with the radiator started, necessitating short stops to fill it up. 

On Jan. 21 our minivan got stuck in the sand and eventually was dug out by a group of Hamer people (for a fee). We had to fill the radiator with water constantly.

The next day, the radiator began leaking so much that Mr. Damtew and the driver started gluing the crack. We stood by the side of the road for two hours, then rode for 10 minutes and had to stop again. The driver coasted awhile, then we walked to a restaurant. Mr. Damtew left us there at 4:10, not returning to pick us up until 7:30.

The following day, after the minivan broke down, we were picked up from the side of the road by a van from another tour agency and driven to a hotel, where we spent the whole day while Mr. Damtew attempted to fix the vehicle.

On Jan. 24 the minivan broke down four times, so lunch was not until 3 p.m. The day after that, after the minivan overheated the third time, we insisted Mr. Damtew take us to a hotel.

So, over those several days, we missed many sights listed on the itinerary. We would have breakfast, then we’d get stranded. We wouldn’t have lunch until 3 or 4 p.m. and then, because we weren’t hungry two or three hours later, we would have no dinner (each of which was to be included with our stay). We often didn’t arrive at our hotel until after 9 p.m. 

Among the listed stops that we missed were Mount Entoto, the Tiya archaeological site, the Afer Market, the Singing Wells, the House of Salt, the Borena people’s weekly market in Yabello and the Awasa Fish Market. During many of our drives, Mr. Damtew slept or read, offering no information or conversation.

Before the trip, we had researched some of our hotels and decided to upgrade two of them. We sent Mr. Damtew the extra money for the upgrades, but we ended up staying in an upgraded hotel only one of the three nights we had booked. More than once, Mr. Damtew took us to a hotel we had not booked, telling us it was because it was better.

At the Murulle Lodge, in the Omo Valley, after telling us the owner had raised the rate by $100 per person, Mr. Damtew asked to borrow the money from us. When we questioned how the hotel could do that after we had reserved at a particular price, he said that it was a common practice in Ethiopia. 

Mr. Damtew said that when we returned to Addis Ababa, he would bring us the $300 the next morning when he brought us our vouchers for our trip in northern Ethiopia. 

The evening before we were scheduled to leave the south, making a long drive back to Addis Ababa for our flight to the north, Mr. Damtew left us at the Aregash Lodge in Yirgalem and said he would return at about 10 a.m. to accompany us back to Addis Ababa. 

When he didn’t show, the owners of the hotel kept calling him and he would say “I’m five kilometers away” or “I’ll be there in 10 minutes” or he didn’t answer. The hotel’s owners, Marika and Gregory, were helpful and very nice. 

Mr. Damtew finally showed up at 6 p.m. with the driver, but as they pulled into the parking lot the minivan died again and wouldn’t start. He started to glue things together, but we refused to get into the van.

Marika drove the three of us and Mr. Damtew into town to get a taxi van. Mr. Damtew wanted us to pay for it, but Marika went to bat for us and Mr. Damtew made some kind of arrangement and we left in the van, only to return with us a short while later because he claimed the van guys wanted more money.

We left again and then, with the three of us in the taxi van along with Mr. Damtew and a friend, the driver stopped to buy some liquor and cola for them to drink and ghat (qat) to chew. They were mixing drinks and chewing ghat the entire trip. 

The driver drove toward Addis Ababa at speeds up to 160 kph (nearly 100 mph). When we complained, Mr. Damtew said we had to accept it or they could just leave us on the side of the road with our luggage. By this time, we were truly afraid for our lives.

Mr. Damtew told us from the beginning that he had booked another guide for us in the north, since he would not be with us there. The original plan was to go to his office with him when we arrived in Addis Ababa and get the vouchers for that part of the trip. 

We arrived in Addis Ababa in the dark at 12:30 a.m. and he, instead, dropped us off at the hotel and said he would return at 5 a.m. with the vouchers and take us to the airport. He didn’t show, and we took the hotel shuttle to the airport. Our tickets were electronic, and we flew north to Bahir Dar and were met by a driver named Thomas, who took us to a tour company representative named Tomin (sp?).

Tomin expected us to arrive with several thousands of dollars that they were owed by Mr. Damtew for the previous month’s tour group. Mr. Damtew also had not paid for us, so we would be required to pay for our transportation, hotels, tours, etc., as we went along. Starting in Bahir Dar, we were supposed to tour the north for five days, going to Gondar and Lalibela, then back to Addis Ababa to fly home.

We told Thomas that we needed a hotel that took credit cards, as we did not have that much cash on us. He took us to the Blue Nile Hotel. There, a desk clerk, Simon, spoke to his manager and got us a special rate. When we came down later to eat, Simon told us that he had told our story to a friend, Fitsum Gezahegne, the president of the Ethiopian Tour Operators Association, who wanted to talk to us.

The hotel manager let us call Mr. Gezahegne, who also is a managing director of Paradise Ethiopia Travel (P.O. Box 34520, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; phone +251 11 551 34 94, fax +251 11 550 45 56,

Mr. Gezahegne rebooked hotels and tours for us, allowing us to pay him for everything with a credit card at the end of the trip!

Mr. Gezahegne got us last-minute reservations at Lalibela. Mr. Damtew had never forwarded the money we paid him for our entry fees. The fees had doubled since the time we had booked our visit, so it cost us $100 each to enter the complex of churches. 

When we finally returned to Addis Ababa after touring the north, Mr. Gezahegne had his driver take us to his office, where we learned that Mr. Damtew was not licensed to run tours.

In Bahir Dar we had tried going to the police, but they wouldn’t take a report from us about Mr. Damtew because he was based in Addis Ababa. Mr. Gezahegne later called the police for us. We tried to get help from the American Embassy, but they only gave us a list of lawyers to contact. 

Mr. Gezahegne’s driver also took us to the Ministry of Culture & Tourism to talk to Sisay Teklu, an assistant to the Minister of Tourism. Mr. Teklu had us write out our complaints and sign it. We signed papers, written in Amharic, supposedly saying that if Mr. Damtew didn’t pay the agreed-upon amount, he and his wife would go to jail. 

We were told later in an email from Mr. Gezahegne, “The next day after you left, . . . Mr. Damtew signed a paper at the Ministry of Tourism to pay all your money back before 31st of March. If he cannot pay the money by then, the government will… prosecute him accordingly.” 

When the deadline passed, Mr. Teklu sent an email saying that Mr. Damtew had been given an extension until May 4. 


Wimauma, FL


ITN mailed and emailed copies of Ms. Riba’s account to Glory Ethiopia Travel & Tours and received no reply.

ITN also wrote to Sisay Teklu, Director, Tourism Stake Holders Directorate, Ministry of Culture & Tourism, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and was emailed the following: “Now that Mr. Damtew failed to meet his obligation, our Directorate for Legal Affairs is handling the matter in accordance with institutional procedure.”

On June 26, Ms. Riba wrote to ITN, “In my latest communication from Ethiopia, Mr. Teklu wrote,
‘…we had to wait for results of actions taken by the concerned sections of our Ministry regarding Glory Ethiopia Travel & Tours P.L.C. What we have done so far is to (1) revoke the company’s Temporary Competence Accreditation Certificate and (2) officially inform The Ministry of Trade to suspend the trade license of the company… . We will continue to do everything necessary to persuade Glory Ethiopia Travel to repay back your money’.”

Ms. Riba added, “For the additional arrangements Mr. Gezahegne made for us through his company, Paradise Ethiopia Travel, after we arrived in northern Ethiopia, we ended up paying him, by credit card, 38,182 birrs (about $2,040). This was the bulk of the approximately $2,800 that we ended up paying out of our own pockets in the north.

“We were told that in the letter from the Ministry of Tourism that Mr. Damtew signed, he agreed to repay us $4,196. Using an invoice (in Amharic) from Mr. Damtew, Mr. Gezahegne came up with that figure.”

In emails on Aug. 13, Oct. 9 and Oct. 13, Mr. Teklu explained to ITN that Mr. Damtew had been arrested, “held against the case of Ms. Riba,” and had started paying the money back to Ms. Riba on an installment basis, having made the first payment of 20,000 Ethiopian birr (about $1,000). Ms. Riba confirmed to ITN that the money had been deposited in her checking account.

Mr. Teklu added, “Again, it was unfortunate this happened to Mrs. Riba and her party. I can assure you that Ethiopia is and will be one of the best and safest holiday destinations in Africa.”

One tip to take away from all this — particularly when traveling with a tour operator based in another country, consider carrying with you phone numbers of the American Embassy, the national tourist office and, possibly, another tour operator to use as a backup in case things go wrong. — Editor