Foreign visitors to Lalibela were in for a nasty surprise on January 8, 2013, when they arrived at the holy churches and were told entrance fees had gone up by 160pc overnight.
The fee went up from 350 Br to 910 Br to visit the Lalibela churches in the Amhara Regional State, an hour’s flight from Addis Abeba.
The town of Lalibela was buzzing, with numerous people making a living from the tourism industry bracing themselves for the impact of the price increase, amidst concerns over how foreign visitors would react. Over 56,000 foreign visitors were reported to have arrived in the town, 636Km north of the capital, in 2011/12.
Lieuwe Bos, 24, a medical student who has just finished his studies and was travelling across Ethiopia with his girlfriend, was unable to pay the fees last week and did not go in.
“This is a rip-off,” said Bos, a visitor from the Netherlands. “How can they increase it just like this? This is more than three times what you pay at the Louvre in Paris, and that is the best museum in the world.”
Church officials vehemently defended the price hike, whilst hotel owners, tour guides and other tourism dependents denounced the increase as a ‘greedy grab’ by church officials, unconcerned about their livelihoods.
“I would not suggest for anyone to come here,” Bos said. “At least they could allow us to visit the churches individually, or give a student discount.”
Those opposed to the increase said that to keep within their budget, foreign visitors would simply spend less on other services in town, such as; buying souvenirs, hiring guides and staying at better hotels.
Adriana Bahar, Bos’s girlfriend, said, “I am very disappointed. We are at the end of our trip and we have used all of our money. We simply don’t have money for the entrance.”
One critic, involved in the tourism industry in the town, said that the head of the church in Lalibela was a powerful figure who kept his superiors happy by sharing the rich revenues that come from tourists.
“There is no accounting for the money,” he said. “The government has no say how they collect and use the money, because they say it is a church matter.”
Habtemariam Baye, who is in charge of the ticketing office at the churches, defended the price hike as long overdue.
“When it went from 50 Br to 100 Br, they said the ferengi are not going to come,” Habtemariam said. “When it went from 100 Br to 350 Br, they said the ferengi won’t come. They are now saying the same thing again, and they will be wrong again.”
The entrance fees for all of the 12 rock hewn churches of Lalibela have gone up by 160pc to 910 Br.