The Ancestral Homeland of Humanity:
The Nature and Current Strategies of Ecotourism in Ethiopia

By Asayehgn Desta, Ph. D.
Sarlo Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Economic Development
Dominican University of California
Jan. 05 2011

Recently I was very fortunate to watch a documentary film on Tourism in Ethiopia, prepared by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The film rightly portrayed that Ethiopia is not only the land of thirteen months of sunshine but is also the cradle of the human race. In their articles, Sukkar (2004) and Henze (2007) vividly narrate that Ethiopia is endowed with a vast array of tourist attractions appealing to a wide of range of interests. These tourist sites include paleo-anthropological sites (i.e., the famous finding of a hominid, Lucy); historic architecture such as the stelae and temples in Axum and Yeha; the monolithic rock-hewn church of Laliibela; the Castle of Fasilades in Gondar; the island monasteries of Lake Tana; the Camelot of Harar; the holiest mosques of Ahmed Negash in Tigrai, the Sof Omar in lowland Bale; the scenic beauty of the mountains of the Semyen, Wag and Lasta, and Bali; the Rift Valley lake; the Omo valley; and the fauna and flora that flourish in the natural terrains of the country. In addition, the myriad peoples of Ethiopia are very proud to deliver to tourists the original version of their subcultures (such as social organizations, artifacts, music, languages, religions, etc). As described by Frances L. Gordon, Ethiopia, the ancestral homeland of humanity reveals the origins of the entire African continent. In Gordon’s words, Ethiopia’s history and culture (are) as good as anything in North Africa; Birds and wildlife (are) as good as anything in East Africa; Climate and scenery (are) as pleasant anything in South Africa; and Ethnic groups and culture (are) as interesting as anything in West Africa (cited from Sukkar, 2004).

Being the cradle of civilization, Ethiopia has archaeological records and sites with sophisticated stone artifacts that represent mankind’s inheritance of a beautiful creation. What is tantalizing is the Ethiopian topography, which is endowed with gorgeous scenes of lofty peaks and enumerable species of wild life and birds. In addition to a diverse environment, the most inviting part of Ethiopia is its myriad cordial people, humble, and generous. In short, when one visits Ethiopia, he (she) cannot leave without having noticed that the Ethiopian environment is distinguishable from earlier times for its creativity, adaptation, change, and continuity. Thus it is worth emphasizing once more that Ethiopia has a remarkably rich heritage and spectacular environment worth visiting by tourists interested in gaining knowledge of its history, culture, diversity of landscape, unique indigenous plants, birds, and mammals, and a great variety of interesting locations to see. In addition it is worth noting to foreign and domestic tourists that visiting Ethiopia can help them gain an appreciation of the country’s enormous diversity of wildlife, exotic landscape, and ancient architectural ruins of historic and religious significance.

However, though the Ministry of Culture and Tourism claims that it has redesigned the tourist industry to make it appeal to environmentally conscious tourists and to demonstrate that the country is relatively stable politically, the tourism industry in Ethiopia is still in its infancy (Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 2010). While global tourism grows at the average annual rate of 4.3%, the tourist industry in Ethiopia still accounts for less than 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product when compared to 6%, 14% and 5% of GDP for Egypt, Kenya and of South Africa respectively (WTO, 2002). Ethiopia is “still struggling with problems of a bad image – the image of drought, famine, and disaster – some of which is true” (Sukkar, 2004). Based on the review of the literature, the purpose of this study is to briefly investigate some of the structural issues engulfing the ecotourism industry in Ethiopia.

Ecotourism for Economic Development

Among other factors, for the service provider, the unfortunate goal of conventional tourism is to provide financial benefits (both local and foreign exchange) with little or no regard for environmental degradation of tourist sites. Conventional tourism gives no regard for demand, but is solely focused on supply to lead the developmental aspects of tourism. With the environmental movement of the 1980s, or more specifically the Environmental Protection Conference of 1986 (TIES 1990), followed by the emancipation of environmentally sustainable development in 1987, ecotourism has emerged as a popular field to balance the supply-led and demand-driven aspects of tourism. As persuasively argued by Liu, based on ecotourism “... the demand determinants push a tourist into a travel decision while the supply factors pull the tourist towards a particular destination (2003).”

Hence, based on the demand-driven and supply-led approach, most destination countries are attempting to maximize their strengths and opportunities and minimize the weaknesses and threats of their tourism businesses. Put differently, the cardinal aims of ecotourism are 1) meeting the needs of the host population to improve the living standards of the local people; 2) satisfying the demands of a growing number of tourists; and 3) preserving the natural environment (Cater, 1993). Specifically, Prosser (1994) identifies four factors that gave birth to ecotourism. These are: 1) dissatisfaction with existing tourist service sites; 2) growing environmental awareness and cultural sensitivity; 3) recognition by destination regions of the precious resources they posses and their vulnerability; and 4) the changing attitudes of developers and tour operators.

For example, according to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserve the environment and improve the welfare of local people, (TIES, 1990).” Based on this definition the six principles necessary for ecotourism to follow are: 1) minimizing environmental impact; 2) building environmental and cultural awareness and respect; 3) providing positive experiences for both visitors and hosts; 4) providing direct financial benefits for conservation; 5) providing financial benefits and empowerment for local people; and 6) raising understanding of the host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates (TIES, 1990).

Unlike in the past, tourists nowadays are aware that they are stakeholders in the environment. As they are becoming conscious of their responsibility they are inspired to form environmental pressure groups. As highlighted by Prosser, besides learning about the history and culture of a tourist site, present-day tourists are drawn to visit and learn more if their destinations have eco-friendly programs that maintain the ecology as well as historical sites. In other words, tourists have concerns for the environment of the countries they are visiting and are motivated to actively participate in environmental protection programs. However, some tour hosts rendering ‘green washing’ or an attachment of “green” labels to tourist services when a service center is not actually operating in an environmentally friendly fashion, is a deceitful act and can pose a serious threat. Therefore, to attract tourists who look for the enjoyment of the “Mother Nature” of tourist sites, the ecotourism industry of many nations must be designed to incorporate and implement responsible, ethical, forward-looking, and far-reaching environmental oversight. In short, ecotourism implies an approach to sustainable development that aims to balance the three pillars of the sustainable development model - economic, social and environmental management.

Though tourism is seasonal at many destinations, ecotourism helps the welfare of local people and economies. Ecotourism can be the source of financial growth by expanding foreign exchange and local currency, serving as a base for tax revenue, increasing local business, reducing unemployment, and improving infrastructure. If a prospective tourist site develops recreational and cultural facilities, and improves its infrastructure, tourism can enhance local economic diversification, and inject capital for the improvement of the local community. When products and services are sold to tourists, it generates taxes. The increased capital could then be used to pay for the preservation of archeological sites, historic buildings, and the revival of local traditions and crafts. Although the lion’s share of tourist income is being taken away or “leaked out” from the destination, “the more that local residents gain from tourism, they more they will be motivated to protect the area’s natural and cultural heritage and support tourism activities (Liu, 2003).” Thus, when the local community is empowered to administer the management and operations of the ecotourism industry through cooperative arrangements, tourism can contribute to the local economies and encourage the preservation of the touristic economic base. As a result of the influx of tourists to a local economy, tourist sites can bring about entrepreneurial opportunities and create a new source of employment. However, it needs to be underlined that in developing countries, jobs created through tourism are generally low paying. For example, in Costa Rica, whose economy is largely based on ecotourism, Dasenbrock (2002) and Martin (2004) have established that locals are generally displaced to lower wage support jobs or as street vendors, while the high paying jobs are given to expatriates. In addition, unless properly protected and seriously regulated by branches of the government, the emulation of the culture and attire of tourists by hyphenated individuals could cause the contamination of cultural values and even the loss and damage to historic sites.

Ecotourism sites generally encourage the ecological preservation and productive use of marginal lands where large tracts remain covered in natural vegetation. In addition, local community involvement can lead to an increase in individual conservation efforts. For example, Stem et al. argue that ecotourism provides a much higher return per hectare of land used compared to other sustainable practices like sustainable harvesting (2003). Thus, in Costa Rica, these higher returns on hectare land use led to the bolstering of conservation policies so that more than one fifth of its total land is now considered a protected area or a national park (Dasenbrock, 2002). Also, if local people are well engaged in the conservation of local resources and other entrepreneurial activities, tourists then can take those ideas which they acquired from their destination back to their respective countries (Stem et al., 2003).

However, the damage from the unregulated flow of tourists can lead to excessive solid waste, litter, erosion, sewage, water and air pollution, natural habitat disturbances, wear and tear of the infrastructure base, and environmental degradation. Also it needs to be highlighted that the effectiveness of managed ecotourism is influenced by the poverty level of the people who live close to the tourist sites. For instance, as seen in China, poor farmers are often less able to capture benefits resulting from ecotourism development because they have no choice but to continue extracting a living from the areas reserved for tourists (Yuan et al., 2008). Thus as stated by Dasenbrock (2002) and Adkins (2010), the major problem with unregulated tourist travel is that it erodes the very foundation of what the tourists come to see. This causes long term issues because as the tourist sites begin to wither away, tourist visits automatically decline.

To be effective, ecotourism needs to be designed with visionary objectives requiring adherence in order to successfully answer the following questions: 1) Is there a genuine effort to help the welfare of the local people and their economy? 2) Is the environment visited being cared for? 3) Does the tourist destination keep the number of tourists within the carrying capacity which can be sustained by the local environment? 4) Are resources being left intact for future travelers to enjoy the same experience? 5) Are the tourist sites equipped to give environmental awareness education to the visiting tourists? 6) Are the tourist guides and operators at travel destinations trained to raise environmental consciousness? and 7) Is the local culture being honored and valued ? (See for example, UnTamed Path, 1999).

The Nature of Ecotourism in Ethiopia

As mentioned above, since the 1990s, ecotourism has become a newer paradigm to tourism because in addition to offering economic and business opportunities for local communities, it strongly advocates reducing the environmental impact of travel, conserving natural resources, preserving cultural heritage, empowering and meeting the welfare of local people, and creating value for the travelers (see for example, TIES, 1990). As stated by Bucsbaum, “eco-tourism should be able to add value to environments, communities, entrepreneurs and tourists within ethical objectives (2004). Realizing the limitations of conventional tourism and convinced by the tenets of Ecotourism, for example, the ecotourism Association of Ethiopia (EAE), founded in 2003 has envisioned “the development of Eco-cultural destinations and Eco-friendly tourism operations of the highest standard throughout Ethiopia and visitors and their host communities understand and embrace the principles of sustainability and the spirit of hospitality.” Its specific goals are to develop and manage in a sustainable manner to improve the environmental and social integration of tourism produced and services at destinations” (2003).

In addition to bilateral donors, the European Union, UNESCO, and the United states Agency for Development (USAID) at the Tourism Competitiveness Workshop held in July 16, 2008, has launched a multi-million dollar projects to enable Ethiopia to take advantage of its vast tourism potential. Briefly stated, “The five-year Ethiopia Ecotourism Development program will protect natural resources and cultural heritage sites, as well as improve the livelihoods and quality of life of local communities” ( Embassy of the United States Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2008). So, when we look at the strategies and implementation of the Ethiopian ecotourism program, is it progressing to be environmentally sustainable while improving the livelihood of the local community or is it straying at the green-washing path? to be continued…


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