Compared with many African countries, Ethiopia is remarkably safe – most of the time. Serious or violent crime is rare; against travellers it’s extremely rare. Outside the capital, the risk of petty crime drops still further.
A simple tip for travellers: always look as if you know where you’re going. Thieves and con artists get wind of an uncertain newcomer in a minute.
It’s very unlikely you’ll encounter any serious difficulties – and even less likely if you’re prepared for them.
Most of Ethiopia is fairly trouble free, but there are a couple of areas where trouble does flare with worrying frequency. These include the Ogaden region, border regions (which can include the Danakil Depression) and parts of the south. It’s generally a mixture of rebel activity and ethnic violence. Though you’re highly unlikely to get caught up in it, do keep your ear to the ground for developments.
In 2016, large-scale protests against the government, particularly in Oromia and Amhara regions of central Ethiopia, prompted many foreign governments to warn foreign travellers against all but essential travel to the country. Many demonstrators were killed in clashes with government forces, and while it seem that tourists were never the target, some foreign-owned businesses were attacked and burnt to the ground. Without such unrest, the country is usually one of Africa's safest countries in which to travel.
Always check your government’s latest security reports on countries (such as those published by the British Foreign Office). Don’t let these scare you away as they do tend to err on the side of caution (though if they warn you not to venture to a specific area then your travel insurance might be invalid). Try also to speak with people inside the country before making any decisions whether or not to visit.
The infamous ‘faranji frenzy’, when shouts of ‘You, you, you, you, YOU!’ greeted you at every turn, is thankfully becoming rarer and rarer – at least in touristy parts of the country. Off the beaten track you can still expect it to be a musical accompaniment to your travels.
If it does start to get to you then just ignoring it or, even better, treating it with humour is probably the best answer in how to deal with it. Anger only provokes children more (there can be few things more tempting than a grumpy faranji!). An Amharic ‘hid!’ (clear off!) for a boy, ‘hiji!’ for a girl or ‘hidu!’ for a group is the Ethiopian response and sends children scuttling; however, it can have the reverse effect and is considered rather harsh from a foreigner.
Several travellers have reported stone-throwing children in various parts of the country.
Compared with other African countries, Ethiopia has few scams and rip-offs. Those that do exist, like the notebook scam (where kids beg for notebooks and pens for school, which, if you buy them one, are taken straight back to the shop to exchange for money), are pretty transparent and rather easily avoided.
In Addis in particular, reports have emerged recently of small boys selling chewing gum and the like surrounding unsuspecting visitors – in the confusion and press of bodies, pockets are often emptied. We've also heard isolated reports of a pedestrian spitting on a person’s leg, pretending it was an accident and then trying to help you to clean it up (and clean out your pockets in the process).
You’ll also hear many ‘hard luck’ stories, or those soliciting sponsorship for travel or education in Ethiopia or abroad. Although most are not genuine, some stories are sadly true, so don’t be rude.
Also look out for fake antiques in shops.
High unemployment has spawned many self-appointed and unofficial guides. You will be approached, accompanied for a while, given unasked-for information and then charged. Be wary of anyone who approaches you unasked, particularly at the exit of bus stations etc. Unfortunately, there’s almost always an ulterior motive. Be polite but firm and try not to get paranoid!
In some of the more remote areas – these include the southeast’s Ogaden Desert, near the Kenyan border; along the Awash–Mille road at night; and in the far west – shiftas (bandits) are sometimes reported. Tourists are very rarely targeted, but it does happen; in early 2012 five foreign tourists were killed and four people kidnapped close to the Irta'ale Volcano in the Danakil Depression. The government blamed Eritrea for the attacks, but nobody has ever been brought to justice. Since that time, a large Ethiopian military presence has made the Danakil area safer than before but it's still worth keeping your ear to the ground.
Check government travel-advice warnings to keep up to date with any recent trouble spots. Tour companies are also a good source of information; though remember that some less than reputable ones might tell you a place is safe when it isn’t just in order to get your custom and money.
Pickpocketing is the biggest safety concern for travellers, but is a problem mainly in Addis Ababa and other large towns.
Keep an eye on your belongings at bus stations and be wary of people offering to put your bags on the bus roof. Be aware that professional thieves sometimes operate at major festivals and markets, targeting Ethiopians as well as foreigners.
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information for travellers:
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs & International Trade (www.voyage.gc.ca)
French Ministère des Affaires Étrangères et Européennes (www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/conseils-aux-voyageurs)
Italian Ministero degli Affari Esteri (www.viaggiaresicuri.mae.aci.it)
New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice)
US Department of State (www.travel.state.gov)