Ethiopia: Sustainable and ethical tourism?

Tamirat Woldehiwot is a guide and trekking organiser from northern Ethiopia. He explains why sustainable tourism must be a priority for Ethiopia:

Tourism to Ethiopia is increasing, however I have concerns that unless managed correctly that we will repeat many of the mistakes of other countries and that tourism will not be sustainable or bring long term benefits to the local community.

Before I become a tour guide I was working for the government in the North Gondar Department of Tourism as a tourism and culture expert and was very aware of some of the shortcomings when promoting sustainable tourism.

One of the key principles of ethical tourism is that the local community is involved in tourism planning and management. However, even where attempts have been made to achieve this aim, this has been difficult. Firstly many of people in the local community have had little formal education, which makes it difficult for them to compete with specific interest groups.

Trying to find a way to reconcile the two to reach mutual agreement has proved difficult. Secondly getting agreement at community meetings is difficult especially as one or two people with strong views can influence the majority. Equally tourism professionals, government experts and business people often under value or even ignore views from the community if they don’t agree with them.

However it is also true that the community often forgets that that many of the business people in the tourism industry are part of the community and therefore the community is benefiting. Finally some destinations in Ethiopia, particularly the heritage sites and national parks fluctuate their entrance, local guide and scout fees. Although not a serious issue this can create conflict between local people at these sites.

We need the community to work together to ensure that everyone gets a fair share of the benefits from tourism. If all the stakeholders work together instead of against each other this will increase their overall power to fight for fair wages and decent jobs.

Although I cannot list all the problems associated with tourism in Ethiopia it is clear that we need to develop some good performance indicators to monitor our progress towards a sustainable and ethical tourism industry, this would also help us recognize where we were failing. I would like Ethiopia to adopt a slogan along the lines of “sustainable tourism begins at home” – this is because most of the local people, like guides, tour operators, government officers, hoteliers etc, often expect other people to care or implement ethical tourism instead of starting the change themselves. For the future we must develop the number of tourists, hotels, infrastructure and service providers that tourists expect.

However I firmly believe that a our first priority is to think about the impacts of increased tourism and how this can expand sustainably and in a way that protects our unique environment and culture and brings long term benefits to my community. A sustainable and ethical tourism industry must be our first concern. Of course the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Ethiopia continually coming up with new laws and regulations which will upgrade the tourism sectors in Ethiopia, but many of these laws and regulations are very hard to implement are often not compatible with the reality on the ground.

When I think about my vision I would like to be part of a responsible and ethical tourism industry in Ethiopia and believe that this holds the future for many of my generation. Most of us agree that sustainability should be about managing the change, not stopping the change. We appreciate organisations such as Tourism Concern and the chance to express our tourism concerns.

Tamirat has a first degree in tourism management and is now writing his master degree thesis on tourism and gender issue in the Semein mountains national park.

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