Each year, hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to Ethiopia, which has been branded the Land of Origins, for the various attractions in our country. The hope is that this industry will inject even more hard currency into the Ethiopian economy.
It is true that the potential is immense for tourism, with the abundant resources available to Ethiopia. Yet, there have been detrimental issues that have hampered the industry from evolving.
There are elements of a human-zoo type of tourism that is being promoted by certain tourism companies. A few years back, I saw an important documentary about the Mursi people in the Omo valley of Ethiopia. The film followed a European woman who was visiting what she described with awe the “people with the plates in their mouth”.
The film also showed that those who lived in the Omo valley have little clue of why people would come to visit them, take pictures of their daily lives without permission and leave. Imagine how strange it would feel if someone suddenly showed up at our place of residence, took pictures, stared at and followed us and left after a while.
I am sure that would be a very uncomfortable situation, then why do we think this would be okay with the Mursi tribe?
The documentary also mentions in the end that the villagers had no concept of money until tourists started coming into their community. Even now, though it is expensive to visit them, the money does not reach the people of that community. Most of the money goes to the tour and travel agencies, and maybe a few of the men in the village that facilitate these visits.
These type of tours also exist in the Danakil Desert. A good friend had mentioned that during her visit with a group of around 30 people, they suddenly stopped at a salt mining location where the majority of non-national tourists would “admire” the workers slaving under harsh weather conditions to make a living.
In the 21st Century, is it still important to mention that we are not amusements?
Yet, I find most times it is our people who dehumanise the experiences of Ethiopians. At times, it almost feels as if we do not think long and hard before executing some of our actions. We seem to have no interest in building. We care only for now. But we must work at promoting the dignity of our people.
In many parts of the world, most tourist attractions have similar traits with scams and illegal activities surrounding them. This is also present in Ethiopia. Many tourists have to keep an eye out for the tricksters that are hovering in the corners trying to take advantage of those new to the country.
The many tourism companies can protect against this, but they do not have a leash as to how they benefit from the many tourist attractions of our country. Individual companies should not be the beneficiary of the tourism industry. It must be mandatory that the communities that are hosting these tourists and part of the attraction are directly benefitting from the industry.
In the Mursi, even the very few individuals that are getting breadcrumbs of the profits are not directly the people of the community.
I often hear in an annoyed tone, “the people even ask you for 10 Br when you take a picture.”
Sure, it can feel annoying for a tourist who has paid a significant amount of money only to be asked for more once having reached the destination, yet it makes all the sense for the community members for whom this is the only way they can earn money directly out of the expedition.
It is appalling when we do not take care of the community that we are benefitting from. This is what exploitation looks like. We must take responsibility as we take newcomers to places that are not their own, with customs that are new and a way of life that might be out of the ordinary compared to what most have come to expect.
It is the responsibility of those visiting to know that this is a privilege and not a right. It is important to tread with respect as we visit sites and people. The tour companies must also consider other critical things such as how the environment of indigenous people should be respected. Visitors can mean more solid waste, and how that is disposed of is also an essential part of respecting these places we are benefitting from.
We must also consider the comfort of those who are visiting, of course. The tour companies should try and have an understanding of the tribes. They must devise a schedule where it is appropriate to tour a community and not be intrusive.
Tourism has positive and negative aspects. It is not helpful for anyone to only think of the benefits while turning a blind eye to the many ills of this industry. In the end, focusing on just the profits of today will rob the future of these amazing gems.
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