Chicago-based gay tour company’s trip to Ethiopia in doubt after threats

Chicago-based gay tour company’s trip to Ethiopia in doubt after threats

Toto Tours ‘Treasures of Ethiopia’ is planned for October.

Dan Ware, owner of the Rogers Park-based Toto Tours — which serves a mostly gay clientele — on a trip to Tunisia. An upcoming trip to Ethiopia is now in doubt after religious groups learned of the visit and made threats on social media. | provided photo.

(chicagosuntimes)–Rogers Park-based Toto Tours offers its mostly gay clientele trips to far-flung locales all across the globe: Sumatra, Bhutan, Macedonia — just to name a few.

But a “Treasures of Ethiopia” trip planned for late October is now in doubt after religious groups in the notoriously anti-gay East African country recently got wind of it, sparking a firestorm on social media.

“I’m stunned,” said Toto owner Dan Ware, who has run the business out of his home since 1990.

The Toto web site features a rainbow-colored globe and says, “Welcome to Toto Tours, where gay men, lesbians, their close friends and adult family members are invited to travel together to discover all the delights this world has to offer.”

Ware, 66, says he’s been inundated with emails and phone calls — many hateful — ever since an Ethiopian blogger posted a comment about Toto and the trip last month.

“They took offense at this and they figure, incorrectly, that we are coming there to make some sort of political statement — to advocate for gay rights in Ethiopia, to disrespect their culture and their religion,” Ware said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Ware, who recently returned from a trip to Bulgaria and Romania, said he suspects the religious groups keyed in on a Toto social media post about the planned trip that promised to “rock you at the rock churches of Ethiopia” — a reference to the country’s famous rock-cut places of worship.

Angry emails quickly followed, including, said Ware, this one:

“Forget your planning to visit Ethiopia as a group of gays!!! You will never go back in ONE piece!!! All people are angry at you. Be careful.”

So far, five people have booked places on the 16-day, $7,900 tour, Ware said.

“Our clients are professionals — they are lawyers, doctors, diplomats, people who are well-placed in the world,” Ware said. “They’ve seen a lot of the traditional places and they want to explore more off the beaten track.”

In some 30 years of business, Ware said his groups have experience almost no anti-gay hostility.

“We are completely under the radar,” said Ware, who often accompanies clients on the trips. “None of our clients want to be broadcast as being gay, especially in the environment where it’s not accepted.”

Ware said the status of the Ethiopia trip is up in the air. He has reached out to the U.S. State Department and the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa. Ware said he reached a diplomat at the embassy Wednesday, who told him to take the online threats with “a grain of salt.”

During his time stationed in Ethiopia, the diplomat has never heard of any American LGBTQ visitors being attacked, Ware said he was told.

“It was very reassuring,” Ware said.

On its website, the state department cautions travelers to “exercise increased caution when traveling in Ethiopia due to sporadic civil unrest and communications disruptions.”

The Lonely Planet online travel guide cautions LGBT travelers: “In Ethiopia and the rest of the Horn, homosexuality is severely condemned — traditionally, religiously and legally — and remains a topic of absolute taboo. Don’t underestimate the strength of feeling.”

For now, the upcoming Ethiopia tour remains on the website.

“The tour is planned for October; I have to make a decision about it soon,” Ware said.