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Ethiopia is studying how to better protect wilderness areas through technical and financial support from the German International Cooperation (GIZ), United Nation Development Program and other development partners. Daan Vreugdenhil (PhD) is a veteran international tourism consultant helping to analyze potential new boundaries for national parks. He has been helping to manage protected areas since 1974 in over 80 countries in South America, Asia and Africa.  Capital’s Pawlos Belete sat down with Dr. Vreugdenhil to discus some of the issues related to development of tourism in Ethiopia.

Capital: What are you doing to encourage healthy wilderness areas?

Vreugdenhil: We are looking at the plants and animals in Ethiopia’s national parks to assess which ones are thriving.  We are trying to identify areas with a variety of animals and plants that are not currently included in areas that are protected. We will propose that important fauna and flora be safeguarded. We also will look at geomorphologic highlights, like the Blue Nile Falls, Erta-ale active volcano, and the Sulfur spring in Afar. These are very important elements in the development of tourism, which is one of the most vital interactions between people and nature. Tourism helps ensure wilderness areas remain protected. No foreigner goes to Ethiopia to see a beach. People come to Ethiopia for its cultural highlights like the Churches in Lake Tana, the Rock Hewn Church of Lalibela and of course Tigray, Axum and Gonder. 

Capital: What do you think about the distribution of Ethiopia’s tourist areas?

Vreugdenhil: They are not evenly distributed. All of them are in the highlands to the north of Addis Ababa. In the lowlands, south of Addis Ababa, you can scarcely find anything at all. People living in the lowlands are benefiting very little from tourism opportunities. It will be a very opportune situation if the national parks in the south would become very important attractions with a lot of wild life, so that Ethiopia could become a player in the market of cultural and safari tourism in Africa. If Ethiopia would succeed in fully protecting its national parks in the south, if they would become teeming with wildlife, Ethiopia would actually be one of the prime destinations for the international tourism market in Africa. Ethiopia would by-pass South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania in ecotourism simply because it can provide both the cultural and safari tourism in one package. Such an approach could not be matched by any other country in Africa. Therefore, there is a fabulously important opportunity for Ethiopia in the safari tourism market. In order to accomplish this, Ethiopia must manage and protect its wilderness areas. However, that is not the case at present. It is really up to Ethiopia to decide whether it wants protected areas or not.

Capital: Do you think there has been sufficient investment in eco tourism so far?

Vreugdenhil: Safari national parks are an investment, just like a sugar plantation. Parks may not produce a tangible product like sugar but the attraction brings tourists who in turn demand services. Any hotel in Addis Ababa will benefit from a good safari national park. Any hotel in Arba Minch will benefit from the tourism activity of Nechi Sar Park. For instance, Jinka, at this point in time, has no good hotels yet. But, if Mago and Omo become good national parks, teeming with wild life, then Jinka would be booming with tourist class hotels. These are investments that the government does not have to even spend one cent on. All that is required is to effectively manage and protect the park. Everything else will take care of itself. So, that is basically the challenge the government of Ethiopia has to look at it.

Biologists specialize in plants and animals but of course if I look at the economic perspective, tourism is one of the four largest sources of revenue in most African countries. Ethiopia is not there yet but it has the potential to get there. The national parks can form an outstanding opportunity to accomplish this goal. Ethiopia has one of the nicest airlines in the world. I always fly Ethiopian from Washington DC to Addis Ababa. It has a fabulous service. Ethiopian Airlines also will benefit from good national parks. The more national parks there are teeming with wild life, the more tourists will flow to Ethiopia through Ethiopian Airlines. People need to get to national parks; people need small tour operators or minibuses to get their services. People do not come to Ethiopia to sit in a minibus but in order to get to a national park people take it. This is just to show how the service sectors of an economy are interlinked and how the development of one sector benefits many. So, Ethiopia needs good and well protected national parks to reap the benefits that arise when they are healthy and full of wildlife.

You see more and more restaurants coming up here in Addis Ababa and in other parts of the country because the tourists need them. Do the tourists need the restaurant in Jinka just to sit in? No, they need it to go Jinka, Mago or Omo.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t go there. So, that is the value and the importance of national parks from an economic point of view. The numbers of jobs that are being created in the tourism sector are also enormous. You cannot export all sort of services, let’s say, to China. A hotel cannot export making bread in the morning to China. China can never take over the service of making bread. It is always has to be done by Ethiopians. You can never export putting food on the table to China. That is a product that is never been exported. Other countries can never compete in such services because they have to be done in the country. That is the great benefit of having tourist attractions. Ethiopia has so many unique tourist attractions. If Ethiopia does not take those unique attractions to its advantage now, I don’t think that they will exist ten years from now because the animals will be gone and many advantages that would be obtained from such unique tourist attractions would be lost.

People talk about biodiversity but the more vital economic issue is that nature brings tourism. We have the bird watchers. Bird watchers want to see the 18 endemic birds of Ethiopia. If Ethiopia looses most of its endemic birds in the next fifteen years, then the bird watchers will no longer be interested in going to Ethiopia. Bird watching is one of the fastest growing sectors of tourism. Bird watchers do not go to safari. They prefer bird watching trips, which is a special brand of tourism in addition to safaris. Only Ethiopia has that. No other African country has that particular sector because there are no such highlands in other parts of the continent.

Capital: You are proposing the development of new protected areas to enhance the development of tourism in Ethiopia. However, the reality on the ground shows that those already established areas are becoming endangered; either due to population or environmental pressure. Is it possible to establish a new protected area in the face of losing the existing one?

Vreugdenhil: We did sign a contract to assess potential new protected areas in the country. So we have to analyze which animals are represented in which park.  We don’t come with full solutions. We identify the area and then say “okay Ethiopia, these are potential areas”. We fully agree that the current protected areas in the country are not fully protected. That it is a choice Ethiopia is going to have to make. We are only going to show what Ethiopia currently has. That is a political choice Ethiopia has to make. We cannot step in the shoes of politicians. That is not our role as consultants. We are hired to identify the areas that are missing. We have identified those areas, those areas should be added if Ethiopia wants to include those ecosystems, fauna and flora we have identified. We are not necessarily saying Ethiopia you have to do this or that. But what we want to stress in the report is the relationship between protection of flora and fauna in the protected area or nationals parks in the tourism sector of the country. That is what I think is very important. We will describe that specific relationship at the end of the document. I recommend policy makers seriously consider if more protected areas could be added.

Capital: You talk about carbon credit in your analysis could you explain how new parkland would affect this issue?

Vreugdenhil: Carbon credit in itself does not relate to tourism. But it can provide finance to protected areas. If you can get more finance from carbon credit, then you can have more staff and larger budgets for the protected area. With more staff and more budgets, you can better manage and protect the land and bring in more tourists.

Capital: Given your experience and travels how would you compare the tourism situation in Ethiopia?

Vreugdenhil: Obviously the prime tourist destinations in the country lie to the north of the country like Lake Tana, Lalibela, Gonder and Axum. In the southern part of the country we have national parks which still have wildlife like Elephants, different types of gazelles. Basically all of the wild life except the rhinoceros are still present in the county. If this wildlife recovers, they are completely comparable to national parks in different parts of Africa like Kenya and Tanzania which attract large numbers of tourists. So, if we look at the potential of the national parks of Ethiopia, they are going to be of equal value to tourist attractions in the neighboring country. But, Ethiopia has a number of national parks in the highlands that no other country in Africa has like Bale and Semien Mountain National Parks. Mountain national parks with trekking opportunities are highland parks with highland forest no other country on the continent is endowed with. It has started to draw the attention of international tourist operators both in Europe and America. As a matter of fact one large international tour operator in the United States asked for my assistance in helping them develop a program for their sales package. So, there is an awakening interest in the tourism potential of those two areas.

Capital: Do you think tourism business is vital given the planet’s environmental challenges?

Vreugdenhil: Yes, we will see changes. We don’t really know how far the changes are going. No expert on this planet can tell you. We have to wait and observe. If we get a dry climate situation, then a number of animals and plants might disappear. But other animals from the drier Ogaden region would find living opportunities in the moist climate. There might be a migration of animals from drier areas to previously wetter areas. What will happen in the highlands is that plants and animals might move up a bit. But you will always have ecosystems of some kind of composition that will be extremely interesting for international tourism as long as you protect them.

Capital: How will increasing population affect tourism?

Vreugdenhil: It is a very difficult issue. It involves many things that need to be organized differently. You definitely have to work with local communities. You will also see a migration of people from country sides to the cities. At this moment in time, Ethiopia has one of the largest rural populations in the country, about 80 percent of its total population. You will see a tremendous migration of people from the country side to urban areas. Whether you like it or not, it is not the issue. That is not what matters. It is going to happen. I have seen a tremendous migration of young people in many developing countries from country-sides to cities. That is what will occur. Even though, you will experience an increase in total population, the increase is in the cities. It is not necessarily true that the rural population does not increase that much. You might very well see the increase of population will actually take place in the cities. Not because the population in cities reproduces itself faster. But on the contrary, the population in cities reproduces itself slower than the country side. A lot of people from country sides go to look for work in the cities; that is what people really do. You cannot predict what is going to happen. You have to live with the situation, see what is going on, and respond to the new situation that will occur. That might be a dynamic process requiring one to be contingently vigilant about what is going on in the designated protected areas and take corrective measures.