NYTimes -- For most of the recent past, what many Americans knew about Ethiopia was that it was a country of crushing poverty and a symbol of world hunger. But though that poverty still remains, Ethiopia has begun to find something of an economic lifeline in cultural tourism. Indeed, in a part of the continent not rich in historical remains, the country holds many of sub-Saharan Africa's most astonishing treasures, like the medieval cave churches at Lalibela, and the 1,700-year-old stone obelisks in the northern town of Axum.
David Else/Lonely Planet ImagesThe Royal Palace in the Royal Enclosure in Gonder, the former capital.
Ethiopia, which calls itself the Land of the Queen of Sheba, also claims title to the Ark of the Covenant, the box of gold and acacia wood that is believed to have once contained the Ten Commandments. Ethiopian Christians say it is somewhere in the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum. (Abercrombie & Kent just started offering a 12-day tour for $3,000 that includes a visit to the church and other stops that trace the roots of Christianity as well as to the village of Falasha, home of the few remaining Ethiopian Jews.)
Although the country can't compete with Kenya or South Africa when it comes to big game, Ethiopia does have more than a dozen national parks, which are regarded to be among the most beautiful in the sub-Saharan region. The terrain ranges from the plateaus of the Simien highlands to the white-water rapids of the largely uninhabited Omo Valley.
There are no luxury tented camps with teak floors and five-course dinners, but several tour operators are offering fly-in safaris into the Rift Valley, Mago National Park and other remote preserves.
Visitors can spend the day spotting leopards and bird-watching, before being whisked back to their hotels in Addis Ababa, the bustling capital with its exotic night life, or Gonder, a slower-paced city invariably referred to as Africa's Camelot because of its many castles.