Tourism without controls - a case study in Ethiopia's lower Omo Valley

The Anglo-Ethiopian Lecture, 2005 

TRAVEL IN THE OMO BASIN – FRIEND OR FOE 

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. My name is William Jones, a recently signed-up member of the Anglo-Ethiopian Society, long time friend of Ethiopia and a dedicated local consumer of njera and wot, tej and talla. It is a pleasure and an honour to be asked to present a lecture on tourism in the Omo Valley, south-western Ethiopia, and would like to thank the society for inviting me to present this short lecture. 

Having initiated Ethiopia's first tented camp and ecotourism project in 1994, I am an advocate of well-managed tourism as a tool for stimulating grassroots economies, but believe that Ethiopia has much to learn. Travel is the second largest industry in the world and produces more than $200 billion in revenue each year world-wide. Of that, ecotourism is the fastest growing segment of the business, growing at the rate of 30% each year. The potential of tourism as a tool for conservation and development, when harnessed appropriately, is clear.

I believe that well-managed tourism will be of huge importance for Ethiopia, both in the interests of sensitive cultural groups and a struggling wildlife population. It requires dedication, training, investment and a commitment from all interested stakeholders, which should include both the private and charitable sectors.

Ethiopia is not an obvious choice of destination, generally attracting discerning travellers rather than tourists. This is a country that inspires naturalists and historians alike. The country was effectively closed to the world for over three decades and persistent international images of a drought and poverty stricken country has in the past caused Ethiopia to be invariably and unfairly overlooked.

The fact is that Ethiopia boasts the highest concentration of highlands in Africa and a history and culture unsurpassed elsewhere on the continent. The country is fertile and diverse and occupied by a proud and friendly mix of races and religions. Due simply to its uniqueness and interest, Ethiopia has considerable potential as an alternative African travel destination for the discerning traveller.

Most visitors to the country tend to head for northern Ethiopia - for a glimpse into the country’s rich and fascinating religious and cultural history. However, there is a significant volume of visitors to southern Ethiopia and the lower Omo basin in search of remote cultural groups such as the Mursi, Kara and Hammer. Depending on where you draw the line, there are as many as two dozen different tribes that live in the south Omo, some numbering tens of thousands and others numbering no more than 500, and each one of them culturally unique.

The tourism situation in the Omo Valley is both extremely sensitive and worrying, and the cultural experience potentially spoilt by a lack of understanding by some local tour operators and both regional and central government of the need to apply guidelines and local tourism controls.

As you will hear later, there are also certain private sector investments in the management of Mago and Omo National Parks that are of some concern to me.

As a relative new-comer to the society, I thought a little background first would be helpful. Why am I here giving this speech? My father first came to Africa in the late ‘60s during the Biafran War with the International Red Cross and subsequently spent the next 33 years on the continent working primarily for the United Nation’s World Food Programme – 5 of which were as the Ethiopian country director. I was raised in five African countries, including three years in an Addis Ababa kindergarten in the mid 1970s, before returning to the UK for further education. I then returned to Ethiopia as an environmental scientist in 1991 to work as a volunteer with CARE International designing a conservation education and awareness programme for the Karayu, Ittu and Afar communities neighbouring Awash National Park.

From Awash I moved on to initiate, in conjunction with FARM Africa, the construction of Ethiopia's first tented camp and ecotourism project on the eastern shores of Lake Langona, in the southern Rift Valley, 250 km south of Addis Ababa. The project was called Bishangari, which means ‘sweet water’ in the local Afaanoromo language, named after a local spring on which the project depended. The camp was built beneath the boughs of a wild fig and podocarpus forest, home to over 300 species of birds (7 of which were endemic) and a considerable population of Abyssinian colobus.

Bishangari attempted, with varying degrees of success, to establish the country’s first community-managed nature reserve and to empower local neighbours in the management of some of Ethiopia's last remaining indigenous forests. In my four years of living from a tent, we were able to provide the finance for the community’s first clinic and school, two small nurseries for both indigenous and fast-growing tree species and provide employment for 45 local Arsi-oromo Ethiopians. 

The project has morphed with time but Bishangari is still operational and I encourage you to visit the area if you have not already done so as it is a spectacularly beautiful and endangered forest that needs our support. Ethiopia's natural resource sector is in crisis and every effort must be made to preserve what little indigenous forest and wildlife remains. At present rates of deforestation, estimated at up to 200,000 hectares a year, Ethiopia will have no more indigenous forest left within about 50 years. The need for intervention is clear.

I now run a small travel company called Journeys by Design, specialising in remote, tailor-made safaris to the African continent. We continue to support local African conservation and development initiatives, including the Bishangari Community Fund, which we are in the process of establishing with the new owners of Bishangari, and the African Medical Research Foundation AMREF who provide essential rural medical services in East Africa as well as emergency air-ambulance support for travellers in the East Africa region.

I have, through the course of working and living in Ethiopia, as well as research for Journeys by Design, now visited the Omo Valley on six separate occasions in the last thirteen years. Although there are others with considerably greater exposure to the area, I have had, relatively speaking, decent exposure to the valley over a particularly significant period in its development as a travellers destination.

I have travelled down the east bank four times, first in 1991, and the west bank once in 2001. In 2004, I navigated north by boat from Lake Turkana on the Kenya side of the border, crossing the Omo Delta and into the valley from the south against the flow of the Omo River. I am going back again this October to navigate by boat the course of the river south, crossing the delta once more before entering Lake Turkana from the north and navigating to the southern western shores at Lobolo. It is an area that I find culturally fascinating, logistically challenging and overwhelmingly unique in the field of specialist African travel.

The Omo Valley has always been considered a final frontier by many where there was an opportunity to visit an area and its peoples almost untouched by the western world. In fact many travel companies continue to sell the area on this strap line but, in truth, it is on the whole now a myth. Although still relatively few travellers visit the area, a total of an estimated 4,000 visit the valley each year (this is in comparison to an estimated 30,000 to the country as a whole) - please note that these figures are open to considerable debate. As tourism numbers increase year on year, there is an increasing need to analyze the impact that this is having on the complex cultural make-up of the valley, and the necessary controls required to ensure that its tourism potential is developed sensitively in the years ahead.

It is commonly agreed that tourism has a responsibility to assist with the appropriate development of host communities and wildlife and as a specialist tour operator we in particular must make careful choices when identifying our partners on the ground. We bear great responsibility particularly when introducing new areas and communities to commercial travel for the first time.

It has been my perception, over the last fifteen years of visiting the area and its peoples, that there have been a number of significant changes in the valley. The reasons for these changes are many and varied but there is little doubt that tourism has acted as a catalyst for many which may have unforeseeable consequences. One of my main concerns is the extent to which tourism in the lower Omo will undermine the area’s traditional cultures and the perspective that they have of their own position in the world.

The first and most obvious trend in the lower Omo is the increase in volume of traffic and the number of organized tours and vehicles on the southern ‘circuit’, east of the Omo River, particularly at the popular Monday market in Turmi, the Saturday market in Dimeka and the Mursi villages at the end of the road, west of Mago. This increase in volume is a mixed blessing.

There is no doubt that this increase in volume has helped trigger local industries and supports a healthier cash economy on an ad hoc basis. However, as most organized tour operators are based in Addis, and owned by northern Ethiopians, payment for most holidays will remain in an Addis account and little filters down to the grassroots. Little, if any, is proactively invested back into schools, clinics and other village services, and as a result each village member is on their own, so to speak, when it comes to bartering with the visitors.

There are very few responsible tourism initiatives - on the ground - which encourage community ownership and management of the tourism product. There are still fewer successful ones.

In truth, this is a complicated model that requires a certain amount of external input and business savvy, such as marketing and bookkeeping - certainly at least for the first generation of the business. However this community ownership model has been shown to work effectively in neighbouring Kenya and there is no reason why this cannot be implemented effectively in Ethiopia, with the right stakeholders and interests in place.

The cash that does filter down to the community level is normally in exchange for camp site fees, photographs, artefacts and basic provisions, such as fuel, wood and eggs. Highland Ethiopian traders are often the only ones running the local hotels and bars, so this again side-steps the grassroots local economy who have little opportunity to invest or business experience.

The result has been an economy that benefits mostly highland investors, whilst the local economy has become more cash dependent as a result of what little trickles down. Although wealth is still traditionally stored ‘on the hoof’, so there is little use for bank accounts and savings, the clean, crisp one birr note has become the most recognizable currency in trade between tourists and local villagers. The cash is then used to purchase livestock, oil, grain, clothing, butter and milk in the local markets.

It would seem obvious to me that a dedicated drive by both the regional and central tourism bureaus to encourage investment in community tourism projects that are partly or wholly owned by the local communities would make sense. It is certainly an area that needs to be proactively explored if communities are to benefit from tourism.

Taking the example of Bishangari, all revenue from the camp was deposited into a Community and Wildlife Development Fund. The funds were then used to finance local area conservation and development initiatives overseen by a locally elected Forest Protection Committee, comprised of local elders, students and administrators. In the two years of operation, the ELDCP planted over 200,000 indigenous and fast growing tree seedlings from its nurseries, built the community’s first school and clinic, tapped a local spring for clean drinking water, designed a local conservation manual and trained guides in outreach education principles, employed and trained 45 local members of staff and established the country’s first tented, ecotourism camp. We were eventually closed due to an unfortunate ruling that NGO’s were, and I believe still are, unable to enter into revenue generation activities - which smacks a little in the face of sustainability.

The long-standing fascination with the cultural expression of some of the local cultural groups - such as the Mursi’s lip plates, the body painting Karo and the bull-jumping Hammer -  has combined with the increased cash economy, poorly trained guides and a complete lack of local tourism controls to produce a cultural interaction that is often uncomfortable. 

Although there are many different cultural groups in the Omo Valley I feel that the Mursi are worth a special mention because of the potential damage that poorly managed tourism is having on them. They are an exceptional group whose lack of contact with the outside world, up until recently, makes them very vulnerable.

The Mursi have been the subject of many coffee table books and newspaper travel articles, which has made them a prime attraction for tourists. Many visiting tourists will endure the relative hardships of getting into the Omo just to see the Mursi, who are probably the most recognizable cultural group in the lower Omo due to the tradition of their women wearing lip-plates. The Mursi live between the Mago and Omo National Parks and are easily accessed from western Mago.

Certain family groups and villagers will wait at the end of the road running west of Mago National Park for the visiting groups to arrive. On arrival a physical and uncomfortable encounter ensues leaving one in a slightly confused state, questioning the sustainability of cultural tourism in the Omo valley in the absence of what must be necessary controls in the interest of the Mursi, and subsequently and secondarily in the interests of tourism. It would fair to say that this small group of Mursi do not represent the majority, but the fact remains that most visits to the Mursi are unfortunately characterized in this way.

The Mursi number less than 10,000 and are one of the last groups in Africa where it is the norm for the women to wear large wooden or pottery lip-plates in their lower lips. The girl’s lips is cut at about the age of 16 by her mother. The hole is then kept open by a wooden plug until the wound heals. It appears that it is then very much down to the individual girl how far she wants to stretch the lip by inserting progressively larger plates. The two commonly held beliefs to explain the practice were that the plates were either an indication of bride wealth or that they were inserted to put off early Arab slave traders. According to David Turton, probably the world’s leading Mursi anthropologist, it appears that neither are correct and instead meant simply as an indication of feminine maturity and cultural identity.

However, there is growing pressure from central government - and indirect informal pressure from within the Mursi - to abandon this practice. There is a growing realization within the Mursi that the practice is a symbol of their backwardness to the outside world and may in fact inhibit their social and economic inclusion into the Ethiopian state. However, it is clear to them that many tourists go to great lengths simply to photograph their lip-plates, which fuels their growing dependence on a cash economy. There is no question that the lip-plate has become an economic asset, and the Mursi will adorn themselves with decoration not usual to their custom in order to appear more appealing to the photographer.

The interaction between the visiting traveller and the Mursi is often, as mentioned before, an uncomfortable one. The often aggressive negotiating process - and the identifying of individual ‘specimens’ for photographs - can be an awkward process for the Mursi. David Turton describes the interaction as one that is stripped of the normal rules of social intercourse and one that has eventually resulted in an altered Musri view of the world and their position in it. Where once they occupied the centre of their physical and moral world, they now find themselves marginalized and remote.

Photography has a lot to answer for. The Mursi see the act of photography as predatory, rich westerners taking photographs of the poor African, and not just of the poor but of a particular, altered area of their bodies - not of their cattle, their lifestyle or their homes. As David Turton again points out, the Mursi realize that photographs are being taken not because the rich traveller wishes to emulate the practice, but because it represents this power imbalance and a gulf between the rich, technologically advanced world and the poorer, technologically backward world of the Mursi. The capture of an image of oneself that you will never truly know or understand is a disconcerting one for the Mursi, as it is for most. It is clearly evident that most Mursi find this degrading as they are presented before the camera whilst the photographer stands behind and operates the mechanism by which he will capture their image.

Another psychological challenge for the Mursi is the sense that they are being visited by a globally mobile audience, whilst they remain trapped at the end of a dead-end road, marginalized and captured on film.

The following is an extract from an article written by Amanda Jones in The Sunday Times Travel section in 1999:

The final leg of our journey was to the Mursi people. In southern Ethiopia this is the tribe that strikes fear into northern Ethiopians and visitors alike. We’d heard so many lamentable tales about their behaviour that we didn’t really know what to expect. The problem is that you can’t possibly come all this way and miss the Mursi, famous for the lip-plates that the women wear in their lower lips.

Because of their reputation, most visitors make a 6 hour round trip drive from Mago National Park to see them. They come tearing down the road, jump out of their cars with cameras blazing and Birrs aflying, create a riot, get scared, jump back into their cars, lock the doors and take-off again in 15 minutes. The Mursi have this down to a fine art. They encircle the ferangie, manhandle them a little, exact inflated sums for photographs, force them to buy chipped lip plates then whip up such a racket that the tourists retreat with only a few terrible shots of the lip plates looming inches from their lens to show for their expensive foray into Mursi land. End quote.

Unfortunately, this is how the Mursi have come to be known and how they are portrayed to the outside world. It is an unfortunate and vicious cycle.

It would be fair to say that many of the other cultural groups in the valley do not share the same characteristics of the Mursi, but I use it as an extreme example. It would seem sensible that some form of village organization is required to set guidelines on the collection and payment of funds in return for example photographs, cultural dances and crafts. This is particularly important in the larger villages that receive a higher volume of traffic because they sit on the circuit such as the seasonal Mursi villages, the Kara village of Korcho and the Nyanyatom village of Kangaten.

I spoke with a Canadian anthropologist in Jinka on Tuesday, Shauna Latosky, who mentioned that they were trying to arrange educational visits for interested visitors through their museum in Jinka which explains, in considerably more detail than most guides would be able to do, the cultural geography and fabric of the Omo valley. Sounds like a good idea that should be pursued and expanded. Should anyone be interested, the museum is being run by the Mainz University in Germany and part funded by the German NGO –GTZ.

Managing the cultural experience is difficult which can result in a rather staged village atmosphere but this is not necessarily always the case. Successful models of well managed cultural interactions can be found with the Masaai in Kenya, for example Il Ngwesi, Sarara and Tassia, where visiting tourists will pay an agreed and fixed amount to the village prior to entry. This fee is then handled by a representative village committee who are then responsible for dispersing those funds as appropriate. The entrance fee includes photography and often a spit-roast goat around the evening fire, with a small dance-troupe to see the night away. Visiting guests are not crowded out or hassled and villagers are left to go about their daily lives in a more natural social atmosphere. Crafts are laid out and well presented on the doorsteps of each household and the visitor approaches at his or her own leisure.

Obviously there will be some that argue that this is ugly commercialization of the experience, but a balance must be sought.

In both cases above the local Masaai own and manage their own community lodges, Il Ngwesi and Tassia, which act as their source of income both from the lodge and from the village. Neither model is without its flaws and inconsistencies, but they have at least made considerable progress towards a model that accommodates both the needs of the international tourist and the needs of the local villagers. The main problem arising, once the project has become commercially viable is how those funds are then dispersed.

Another area that is impacting on the overall experience in the lower Omo is poorly trained guides from the north. Many of the groups now visiting the Omo Valley are often accompanied by both a driver and a guide from the northern highlands of Ethiopia. Many of these have little regard for the darker Bantu, Omotic and Nioltic tribes of the Omo basin and are often poorly briefed on their complex traditional and social values. Although there are a number of responsible operators in Ethiopia (Yumo Tours, for example), and there are some superb Ethiopian guides, I think it would be fair to say that the majority are in the tourism business for a fast buck, and care little for local community development and the impact of tourism on sensitive cultural groups thereby eroding the base on which their business relies and jeopardizing the longer term tourism potential of Ethiopia.

The absence of guidelines or suitable training for the majority of Ethiopian guides severely limits the potential for growth in this area. A good guide can transform a holiday from an average experience to an excellent one and it is a shame that there are few properly trained guides accomplished enough to handle and interpret the complex social and cultural environment in the lower Omo. In southern Africa and, more recently in east Africa, guides are required to complete a series of practical and library based exams before qualification. This has obviously had a positive impact on the quality of guiding and the experience of holiday makers, who then refer the services of the guide and his or her company on to friends and repeat business grows. In comparison to countries like Kenya and Tanzania, Ethiopia does not enjoy a particularly high level of repeat or referral business.

In addition, the driver is - in my experience - rarely interested in little beyond his car, which he rarely understands the workings of. A close inspection of tyres and spare tools before setting off by road is always a good idea as these are often areas that are surprisingly neglected.

A novel approach to tourism in the Omo valley has been the introduction of boats on the Omo river. On Kenya’s northern border with Ethiopia lies Lake Turkana, also known as the Jade Sea. From their base on the western shores of Lake Turkana, Halewijn and Joyce Scheuerman have been running remote expeditions across the lake, through the Delta and further north following the Omo River into the lower Omo Basin of Ethiopia. Due to a recent agreement with an Awasa businessman they now also have a base in Ethiopia and Jade Sea Safaris have brought their boats to the Ethiopian side of the border and, with a local arrangement with the Kara village of Duss, has set up a small seasonal tented camp which they use as their base from which to explore the lower Omo valley by boat.

Halewijn has negotiated a fixed annual sum for the lease of the land with the local Kara to whom he also pays an agreed and negotiated sum for cultural performances. Halewijn, most importantly, employs a local Kara man, Lale, as his head guide in the area who he is grooming to take over and run the Ethiopian operation in years to come. How realistic this is remains to be seen, but at least he is trying.

As there is no one else operating boats on the river, in this fashion, you are almost guaranteed to have the an entire 200 miles of river to the north and a further 200 miles to the south into Lake Turkana pretty much all to yourself. The use of boats is an ideal way to observe local villagers going about their regular daily lives on both banks of the Omo River. The other huge attraction of the boats is that they can access the Omo Delta and the home of the Dassanech. We estimate that 20 people are able to access the delta each year – and all of these are with Halewijn in his boats.

The bird life in the Omo Delta is incredible and there are large Dassenech villages along the riverbank. These cattle owners are one of the wealthiest tribes of the Omo River ecosystem. Some of the men are scarified, depicting the number of enemies they have killed in battle and scarification is of tremendous prestige within the tribe.

The Omo Delta is also home to the Nyagatom. These people are a large tribe, related to the Turkana in Kenya and the Toposa in Sudan. They are a tough warrior Nilotic tribe that are uncircumcised. The women wear cowry shells and the jewellery and iron bangles are numerous. These cowries were probably traded to them by the early explorers and have been handed down through the generations. Some on the river Nyagatom have taken to crocodile hunting - this is done at night with harpoons.

If you would like to know more about this particular style of safari, there is a travel feature written by Lucia Van der Post (daughter of Laurens) due to run in the Financial Times in the next few weeks, and if anyone is interested I would be happy to forward copies. I will be returning to the Omo Delta in October to jointly guide a similar safari with Halewijn, should anyone be interested in joining us.

Aside from the cultural attractions of the valley what role do the two main parks, Omo and Mago, and its wildlife play in the lower Omo valley, Ethiopian parks are poorly managed due principally to a lack of funding. There are other compounding factors which mean that parks are all inhabited and the environments and wildlife that they support in crisis. Except for a spectacular bird list and a few endemic mammal species, Ethiopia is not known for its wildlife. Wildlife populations have decreased considerably as a result of population pressure and the almost complete obliteration of indigenous forest – Ethiopia’s forest cover has dropped from 30% some 40 years ago to less than 2% today.

Most of the wildlife in Omo and Mago has been commercially and traditionally hunted out, and what remains is skittish. The infrastructure and amenities in the parks are poor to non-existent, and the warden’s vehicle, when operational, rarely has the fuel to drive it. The park staff and their families suffer particular hardships and lack motivational and operational support. 

So although the two parks in the valley do offer the visitor a limited wildlife experience they are not the main reason why people tend to visit the area. However, as I explain later, this may be all about to change.

Both parks are also of questionable value to the local communities. There have been a number of approaches to conserving wildlife in Africa ranging from the protectionist ‘fences and fines’ to a more open-door ‘hearts and minds’ strategy aimed at fostering the support and trust of neighbouring communities - in whose hands the future of wildlife must ultimately lie. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and to date none have been able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that they are the final solution. Invariably the answer will lie in a compromise based on specific local conditions.

Intervention at the grassroots level is a priority. The Ethiopian government promotes a programme of devolution of political control to its regional governments, one aspect of which is to empower local communities to control and benefit from their own natural resources.

However, although devolution of control and power to the local level is preached, in practice neighbouring communities are paid little attention and receive little return from the presence of the protected areas. This is clearly an area where well managed ecotourism has a role.

The answers for good neighbourly partnerships in the Omo valley must surely lie in short-term incentives overlaid with a long-term education strategy - at the same time as highlighting both the direct and subtler advantages of conservation. Self-sustaining local development initiatives, where tourism can stimulate the cash economy and support the very markets that these initiatives rely on, help provide those longer-term tangible returns.

If Ethiopia is to tackle responsible tourism, then the role of the private sector in conservation is vital and the country has taken its first steps in this direction. The Nech Sar (meaning white grass) National Park has recently been offered a 25 year management contract which is an exceptional and forward looking step. If any of you have been lucky enough to cross the Bridge of Heaven from Arba Minch to Nech Sar, you will realize how attractive a proposition this must be to the keen investor with an eye on the future of Ethiopian tourism.

Omar Bagersh, a successful local investor and owner of Bishangari, has been working with African Parks funded by Van Vlissingen, a billionaire investor, to negotiate a concession for a camp within the park. The priority for African Parks, according to Omar, is sustainability, not returns for the investors. They have indeed been invited by the Prime Minister, Meles Zinawi, to view other parks for management based on the successes of their approach to parks in southern Africa. But does the southern Africa model suit the unique conditions of Ethiopia? Time will only tell.

The breaking news is that, during the course of my discussion this week with Shauna, the Canadian anthropologist based in Jinka, it transpires that African Parks may have also secured a 25 year lease for both Omo and Mago National Parks. She expressed deep concerns about the consultation process and the complete lack of communication between African Parks and the local Mursi. African Parks will be investing heavily in the area in terms of monitoring, patrolling and infrastructure, but it has not been clear what benefit if any the local Mursi will receive from the investment.

Apparently African Parks are proposing to construct a series of cultural museums – a model village approach and construction is I believe already underway. I believe there are seven villages for seven separate cultural groups. How this is handled remains to be seen.

 Talking to David Turton on Wednesday about the role of African Parks in the Mursi areas, he too expressed concerns about the fences and fines approach to the management of these two protected areas. If the parks are indeed to be fenced to keep the Mursi out, then African parks should expect resistance both locally and internationally. In fact, it appears that an alternative blueprint for the development of Ethiopian national parks is being put forward by interested parties concerned about the current commercial march of African Parks through Ethiopia’s protected areas. This is being supported by Flora and Fauna International.

Another of the concerns expressed by David is the effect on local security of the cordoning off of the parks. The area is already awash with guns from Sudan and intertribal conflicts are commonplace. If the Mursi and others learn that the land is being taken from them to suit the needs of the tourists, they are likely to respond aggressively and the security situation could deteriorate.

However, Ethiopia is a desperately poor country and you can see why the offer of a considerable investment in the management of their failing parks is an attractive one. It is easy to criticize the role of the private sector, but conservation, management of resources, development and training are all business models that have the potential to create wealth and have to be financially viable to be sustainable. Parks for example have to be managed in a proper business-like manner to provide incentives and returns for the managers at the same time as results for communities at the grass-roots. If the business model does not work then a project cannot be sustainable without external funding which may not be available on a recurrent basis. 

In practice, tourism is unlikely to be a permanent reliable source of long-term income for Ethiopia. Tourism is fickle: countries become insecure, interests wane, projects fold. Even if the local tourism model is a successful one, the average life expectancy of any successful business is about 30 years, whilst generations of communities and wildlife will have longer-term requirements.

Ultimately, wildlife may only survive on private land with rich benefactors to oversee, and presumably subsidise costly management and security services – run on a professional and business footing as in the case of African Parks.

In closing, imagine if you can an Ethiopia where communities and wildlife complement each other, where conservation and development work hand in hand, and where tourism helps drive these initiatives by covering the necessary running costs on a long-term basis. Is it a far flung dream or a potential reality? Of course the answer will depend very much on the specific local conditions, but in truth tourism is unlikely to be able to reliably foot the bill. Rather it should be viewed as an invaluable tool for partly realizing these ambitious dreams.

As Ethiopia and the Omo grow in popularity, as peoples negative perceptions of Ethiopia change, and as more investment flows into the country, there has never been a better time to look closely at the impacts that tourism is having on the valley in an attempt to manage and improve the experience for all stakeholders.

Where the future lies we can only guess at. However one should assume, through a combination of sweat and toil, clear business strategy and communication that tourism must have a role to play in the sensitive, long term management of the Omo’s exceptional cultural environment and Ethiopia’s dwindling resources and it is Journeys by Design’s responsibility to support those that share the same vision.

 

Thank you very much.

 

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