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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Religious Tourists Flock to Ethiopia

LALIBELA, Ethiopia -- As a stranger draws near, priest Mesganaw Tarkgn puts on an embroidered cape and raises an ancient cross in a picture-perfect pose. He is used to the demands of visitors to one of Ethiopia's holiest sites.

Rather than a blessing, these days they want a snapshot of religious life in Lalibela's red, rock-hewn churches, said by many locals to be the eighth wonder of the world.

Ethiopia is the second oldest Christian country on earth and also possesses treasures from Muslim kingdoms that the government hopes will help draw more travelers interested in faith.

Legend has it that these churches were carved below ground at the end of 11th century and beginning of the 12th century, after God ordered King Lalibela to build churches the world had never seen -- and dispatched a team of angels to help him.

"I'd be happy to welcome more tourists," said Mesganaw, who has been a Orthodox priest for 32 years. "I want people to know about Lalibela."

For centuries, devout Christians traveled by foot and donkey to see the churches perched in the northern highlands. The skulls and mummified remains of some lie even now in tombs chiseled deep into the cliff walls around one church, Beit Giorgis.

Today, the minivans of Americans, Britons and Chinese that drive along winding highland passes suggest a growing number of foreign tourists are discovering what the pilgrims have always known.

"What we're witnessing is a revitalization of the tourism sector in Ethiopia," said Mahmoud Dirir, the country's culture and tourism minister.

Ethiopia boasts eight UNESCO World Heritage sites but decades of hunger, conflict and political instability have kept the country and its fabled palaces, obelisks and castles off the beaten track for most visitors to Africa.

Tourism represents a mere 2.5 percent of its gross national product -- something the government is keen to change.

The country has set the ambitious goal of attracting 1 million foreign visitors per year by 2010, which would quadruple current figures.

Religious tourism may prove to be the answer.

"We are focusing on our comparative advantage, which is the diversity of the cultures of the Ethiopian people, and ... the faith aspect," Dirir said.

Preserving its ancient monuments is just one of the problems the government must tackle if Ethiopia is to compete against the likes of Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa for tourists.

It desperately needs more hotels, better transport links and banks in far-flung towns for visitors to change their dollars, euros and pounds into birr.

At Lalibela's small airport, a dog-eared ledger on which is scribbled an invitation for "Visitors' Suggestions" offers an insight into the frustrations endured by many travelers.

The most common criticism is about the flight schedule -- or rather, the lack of one due to delays, nonarrivals, cancellations and technical woes.

Others complain about widespread begging by children, "flea-infested" carpets in unnamed hotels, poor menus and being charged a room rate different from the one advertised.

Almost all, however, agreed on one thing: the view.

"My visit to Lalibela has reaffirmed the pride for my country. No matter where I go, no matter what I see I will never forget the beauty of this holy land," one Ethiopian wrote last month.