We should not confuse economic growth with economic development. Indeed, focusing on economic growth alone may not consider the manner in which the growth is achieved and how gains are distributed. We should be careful to assume that economic growth is always good and that economic growth reduces poverty. Looking at this from the wider perspective of economic development, issues of sustainability, distribution and sharing of the gains of development and indeed reduction of poverty for many, are likely to be considered more.
Let us discuss this in respect of tourism for example. There is no doubt about the potential this country has in terms of tourism and how tourism may grow and contribute more to Ethiopia’s economy. We live in the land of 13 months of sunshine, where the smile is at home and where we bend over backwards to welcome visitors. Ethiopia is truly a land of rich cultural diversity and dramatic geographical scenery throughout the historical route and the Great Rift Valley. It is an interesting destination to visit according to tour operators and travellers alike. Tourists typically do the historical route while many also come to visit some of the unique national parks like Bale Mountains for example. There is still some spectacular bird- and wildlife to admire in the country, including quite a number of endemic species, not seen anywhere else. Wildlife has been seriously dwindling in numbers though over the years and if we want the natural environment, the national parks and wildlife to continue to be tourist attractions that support the economic development of this country we need to seriously assess current negative developments and turn them around before it is too late.
Take the Bale Mountains for example. Impressive, to say the least, in terms of the scenic beauty of the area and the birds and wildlife. There are also concerns as goats and cattle are taken to graze on the plateau. Now, we need to appreciate that the plateau of the Bale Mountains is a highly unique ecosystem that allows the vegetation, birds and wildlife to flourish the way they do. It provides the habitat for the mole rats, on which the famous Simien wolf feeds for example. If we continue to allow cattle to graze and trample on this highly vulnerable surface, the habitat of the mole rat will in the end disappear and with it the wolf and with it the very reason why visitors go there. The ecosystem does not only attract tourists though; it is the origin of streams and rivers, which are in danger of drying up should their source erode, with all sorts of negative consequences downstream.
The situation is not getting any better in other natural heritages and national parks either. Mago National Park for example is in danger of irreversible loss. The natural habitat of the park is host to many unique bird species and wildlife, including elephants, giraffe, buffalo and smaller game. Their numbers are going down at a tremendous speed because the communities living in the park’s surroundings are poaching the animals, cutting the trees and burning down the forest. The pressure on land is ever increasing because of various reasons, including population growth but also investments for agriculture. What we observe is that the local population encroaches on natural habitats and ecosystems, which as a result are in danger of being lost forever, instead of protecting the very land that provides for their livelihoods in various ways.
Could it be that local communities are not regarded as main stakeholders in the conservation of our environment and in the tourist sector? As in any project I have observed over the years, there will be no success without involving the local communities and allowing them ownership over what is happening with and around them. Instead, tour operators, travel agents, hotels and restaurants take it all. It seems to me that all parties involved don’t really consider each other and perhaps that is where we can begin to do something about improving the situation. Most tourists are not only interested in the wildlife but also in the people living nearby and they most probably won’t mind paying, given the chance to learn more about their lives and livelihoods. There is more that motivated them to make this long journey. So what can be done?
Stakeholders must come together, meet, discuss and find ways so that all can continue or some even begin to benefit from tourism in their area. Stakeholders include the local communities in the first place, park management, the tour operators, hotels, restaurants and other service providers. Tour operators and travel agents, who should know their business, seem best placed to take the initiative. Some good ideas may come out of brainstorming sessions, while the communities may come up with suggestions and contributions never thought of before. Imagine a local museum, where tourists can learn everything there is to learn about local life, cultures, ceremonies etc. The visit could be enriched by lectures and walking safaris though the village and the bush. The children of tourists may be given the chance to herd some animals for a while together with some of the local kids or learn how to milk a cow. A campsite nearby will allow the visitors to stay longer while the evening is lighted up with some dance and music. The tourists will be more than willing to pay for the package and benefits will go to the community, not only to the individual who posed for a picture or to the tour operator, who brought them there. A comprehensive visitors’ package can de developed as is done in other countries. Why don’t we learn from experiences elsewhere? It can be done, this much I am convinced of. But it must be done together and with the communities included as major stakeholder, who will benefit from tourism and in return will protect the nature and wildlife. The result of the effort could be a real win-win situation instead of the loose-loose that it often is now.