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Capital: Can you tell me about ESTA and what it does?
Bedilu Shegen: First of all let me try to explain ESTA. ESTA has a lot of member companies in it but the main company that over looks at the activities is Counterpart International. Our main goal at ESTA is to create a connection between protecting the environment and helping the community through tourism. We want societies to have an alternative way of existing without harming the environment. We mobilize them and work with them so that they can have a sustainable way of living through community tourism.
We also teach them to take good care of the bio-diversity in their area and give them awareness of how keeping the environment safe will help them. For this community tourism project we selected six areas in different parts of the country including areas around Lake Zeway, Lake Langano and Konso. The areas were chosen because of their potential, the attractiveness of the areas as well as the fact that they were in danger of being destroyed. We wanted to work with vulnerable places that do have tourist attractions. We wanted to work with the communities that live in these areas, so we partner with them to protect the area while coming up with alternative solutions for the community’s need.
In Ethiopia there are no community led conservation areas, it is not well known, and that is why we are working on this pilot project, to bring this concept to life. If communities are able to learn to protect their environment it will be sustainable.
One of the main reasons for communities not to protect their environment is that they don’t have alternatives of income except for firewood. They are forced to cut down trees and use them as firewood. You can’t go to these communities and tell them to just stop cutting down trees without providing them with other solutions. That would not be sustainable.
So we go into these communities, consult with them, and we try to come up with common grounds. Other sources of income such as certain kinds of art crafts they could sell or like I said before by conserving the environment they can attract tourists and providing service for the tourists, that can also earn them some money.
Capital: Could you explain a little bit about what community tourism means?
Bedilu: Community tourism is different from conventional tourism because the direct beneficiaries are the communities. If you go to the regular tourist destinations such as Lalibela or Axum, you will see that the people who live there did not benefit from the tourists that flock to their village. Right now in other countries, community tourism or responsible tourism has gained momentum because issues of the environment have become one of the most talked about issues in the world today. This kind of tourism attracts tourists who are trying to give back to the community while enjoying themselves. It is all about protecting nature and helping communities grow through sustainable ways.
Moreover teaching communities about HIV is also integrated in the program, there are many problems that come along with tourism, so we educate and train them on how to protect themselves.
Capital: Since this kind of tourism is still a new concept in Ethiopia, how well have you worked and continue to work on bringing awareness about it?
Bedilu: That actually is our main job, bringing awareness to the people. People don’t really know much about tourism, especially those who live around ideal tourist destinations in Ethiopia. They don’t know that they could gain so much out of it.
It has been five year since this project started, when it started our job for almost three years was bringing awareness to the communities around there. After that we helped communities come up with different products they can sell to tourists, leading to having an income source. To do all this we worked with the government and the private sector. When we talk about tourism in Ethiopia we know that over 85 percent of the tourists come through the connection of tour operators, so the key to expanding community tourism is through working with these tour operators.
When we started this project, we went to different communities to know more about the area that can be a touristic site, some of them might have waterfalls, and some might have birds or other wild animals. Then we bring in the tour operators to these sites and ask them what the communities should add to the area so that they can attract tourists. The tour operators gave us suggestions among other things to put up a camping site, toilets and kitchens, and trekking trails. After those suggestions we help the communities to fulfill the necessary requirements suggested by the operators.
We also train the people around there to become tourist guides, so they will be able to show people around. All these people who will be involved are from the community.
Not all of the selected areas are potential tourist destinations; two out of the six has just become a community conservation area. We simply just help the communities in those areas to develop an alternative livelihood instead of exploiting the environment.
Capital: Do the tour operators cooperate with you and how many of them are working with you currently?
Bedilu: Working together with the tour operators has been really good, many have been supportive but like I said before the idea of community tourism is new in this country. In this project we have a program called “Travel Philanthropy” where a tourist can do something that can change the lives of people in a community. We are not talking about just handing out pencils, books and other things we regularly see. This has to be sustainable. For example, in Konso, we have a seedling nursery, so when tourists visit that area they can buy a seedling for 20 USD and plant it in their name. Tourists necessarily don’t have to go to the sites, they can simply buy the seedlings online and the same thing will be done for them. The money will directly go to the community.
Another thing is when tourists go to Zeway they can help a family by donating a fuel conserving stove which is sold for 35 USD. The family will have the stove while the community as a whole will receive the money.
The tour operators really support this idea and encourage tourists to visit these sites. Even beyond that, there are some tour operators that have actually donated some money to the communities. There are around 20 tour operators that are constantly supporting us and working with us.