Religious groups in Ethiopia are urging authorities to ban a trip organised by US-based travel company that caters to gay men and lesbians

AFP

An LGBT tour operator has received death threats and hate messages on social media after launching a holiday to Ethiopia. Chicago-based Toto Tours 16-day trip to Ethiopia is due to take place at the end of October and includes religious sites such as the Debre Berhan Selassie in Gondar and the ancient cave monasteries in the mountains of Lalibela.

But religious groups in the country are urging the Ethiopian government to ban the company from visiting religious sites, warning that gay travellers could face violence.

Ethiopia has strict anti-gay laws, with homosexual acts punishable by up to 15 years in prison. According to Article 629 of the Ethiopian Criminal Code, this applies to both nationals and foreigners.

Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Dereje Negash, vice chairman of Sileste Mihret United Association, an Ethiopian Orthodox Church organisation, said that gay travellers with Toto Tours, will be damaged, they could even die, if they visit Ethiopia. Toto Tours are wrong to plan to conduct tours in our religious and historical places, he said.

Tagay Tadele of the Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia told news agency AFP, which has seven Islamic and Christian denominations as members, said: [LGBT] tour programmes and dating programmes that try to use our historical sites and heritage should be immediately stopped by the Ethiopian government.

Toto Tours, which has been organising trips around the world for LGBT travellers and their friends and families since 1990, describes itself as dedicated to creating exciting travel opportunities that enable our community to explore the wonders of the world in comfort and safety while having the time of our lives. It has also run tours to Uganda and Tanzania, both of which currently criminalise homosexual acts.

In an email to AFP, Toto Tours president Dan Ware said the company had been terribly misunderstood, and called for protection for the tour group from both the US State Department and the Ethiopian tourism ministry.

We come with only the greatest respect and humility, Ware said. Our company is not aimed at spreading values contrary to local cultures when we travel around the world. We are simply an organisation where like-minded people can travel comfortably together to experience the worlds most precious wonders.

This is terrible discrimination, and when the word of this spreads internationally, as it is most likely to do, it will have a negative impact on the important tourism industry in Ethiopia.

John Tanzella, CEO of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), said the situation showed how much work there was still to be done to achieve equality, and that the travel industry could play an important role in facilitating change.

Our company is not aimed at spreading values contrary to local cultures when we travel around the world. We are simply an organisation where like-minded people can travel comfortably together to experience the worlds most precious wonders

We are believers in the long-term power of tourism as a positive force. IGLTA has member businesses in more than 80 countries, and not all of them are located in places with favourable laws for LGBTQ+ people. Our policy is to support their commitment to providing safe and welcoming LGBTQ+ travel experiences, he said.

Where to travel is a personal choice, but the key is to be an informed traveller who understands the laws, culture and associated risks of the places youve chosen to visit.

Anti-gay laws are widespread across Africa, with homosexuality punishable by death in Mauritania, Sudan, northern Nigeria and southern Somalia. Earlier this year it was decriminalised in Angola, joining 21 other African countries (according to Amnesty International) including Burkina Faso, Republic of the Congo and Mali, where homosexuality has never been against the law.

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