Tale of the Lame Tourism

No one would have the audacity to leave the Simien Mountains without exploring the gigantic mountains and the incredible landscape of the Great Rift Valley. Last week, in my volunteer work to help train students in the Simien Mountains, I was no different, deciding to extend my stay.

The proximity between Gonder and the mountains, with less than a four-hour drive between them, hides a tale of two countries instead of just towns. Such is the contrast between the two. Gonder is a charming small city full of residents with an acute sense of humour and respect for one another. Indicative of the former is this particular turn of phrase, where they have changed the saying “bemote”, which is usually used to convince someone to eat or drink, into “bekomand post”, referring to the task force set up to execute the reinstated State of Emergency.

Indeed, the people there do not seem all that different from the residents of Addis Abeba. On the other hand, the contrast between them and the people that make a living in the Simien Mountains, one of the most inhospitable landscapes in Ethiopia, is stark. Despite what anyone might expect, this community is less concerned about the larger picture, such as the human struggle for freedom and security. It is merely surviving one day at a time.

Up in the mountains, the only signs of modern civilization are the electric power supply towers, the mobile phone network, and the luxurious Simien Lodge. This lodge, which mixes European styles with traditional Ethiopian ones, once attracted Nicky Oppenheimer, the South African billionaire who is the former chairman of De Beers, a diamond mining company, to stay in the hotel during his visit to the mountains.

Indeed, one would have a hard time having a conversation with the residents of the Semien Mountains. And if one successfully engages the people there, the conversations to be had can be highly baffling.

Life for them is about finding enough food and enough clothing to keep warm. Things that more cosmopolitan-minded people would find fault in are totally accepted there. Child marriage is common and female genital mutilation takes place behind closed doors.

But for all their flaws, it is touching to see them struggle all day for the little gains that they get. Their seeds of hope rely on the Semien Lodge and on the tourists, whom they describe as the “sparkling foreign people who look after us”. The Semien Mountains may be a world heritage, but for those making a living there, they can be unkind.

The gap between those that use the little resources they have efficiently and those that do not, even though they have them in abundance, is mind-boggling. Take our neighbouring country of Kenya, which has less than half the population size of Ethiopia’s, as an example. They charge 40 dollars for entering into parks that are increasingly turning into zoos. The local private tour companies make 300 dollars a day with just one tourist in the park.

In Ethiopia, a tourist is charged only four dollars to be able to visit the breathtaking mountains and the matchless wildlife scenery there. Those in charge of the mountain park are often inefficient and unprofessional, some even drinking while on duty. Moreover, the authorities ignore unrestricted deforestation, illegal hunting and the unbearable odour that comes from indoor and outdoor toilets.

Despite all of these challenges, the potential of the Ethiopian tourism industry is immeasurable as it continues to host visitors who are brave enough to explore the country despite the many inconveniences that they face. The industry can hold its own in the competitive environment of the African tourism industry since the nation has riches for which many are ready to bear the cost.

The industry, akin to McDonald’s for its cheapness, cannot realize its true potential without an efficient system. The country must navigate skilfully and powerfully to push back against inefficiency in order to use its ample cultural wealth.

Interestingly, Ethiopian Airlines has proven itself to be more successful in promoting Ethiopian destinations than those institutions whose exclusive task is to manage the industry. It is time to make the toddler McDonald’s of tourism think big and realize its potential.

Setting high standards and assigning managers who know the tourism business well will bring remarkable outcomes, outcomes that can have a significant impact on the economy. The country must implement smart solutions instead of assigning inexperienced officials who have very little knowledge about Ethiopian tourism and the destinations.

Little thought is given to the damage created by giving educated but inexperienced staff high-level positions in the industry. Fancy organisations have not helped the industry either. I was once informed that a high ranking official, while in London, cancelled a training opportunity for Ethiopians for the sake of not inconveniencing herself.

With so many eager donors around the globe willing to contribute to wildlife and natural resource conservation, all that is needed is the effort to contact them and the will to work with them. Neglect has become too familiar and is depriving the nation and its people of many benefits.

Simply declaring a goal in the capital city, without reaching it in practice, will do very little to ensure tourism’s success. Only improved systems and an experienced staff can successfully ignite and move it forward. Taking strong, relevant actions will guarantee the industry’s success. The country must realize and harness tourism’s potential wealth. This wealth can change many people’s realities as well reduce poverty in places such as the Semien Mountains. It is about time that tourism officials cease fruitless trips abroad. It is time for them to implement game-changing reforms in order to transform the tourism industry at home.

By Eden Sahle

Published on Mar 03,2018 [ Vol 18 ,No 931]



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