Responsible tourism in Ethiopia

Travel right in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has an image problem. Say the word “Ethiopia” to many people, and the images that spring to mind are not from vacation brochures – but from decades-old news reports. This vast nation, the “cradle of humankind”, with phenomenal architecture and over 70 languages – boils down to a few minutes of heart wrenching footage of the “biblical” famine of the 1980s.

For a rapidly developing nation with a huge tourism potential, this is tricky. Why would anyone want to go on vacation to a sun-baked desert full of famine-ravaged, fly-swatting children? But as crucial as those images were at the time in sparking the biggest fundraising effort the world had ever known, they have sadly condemned Ethiopia to live in the shadow of its past.

There are several problems with this depressing stereotype. Firstly, the arid region was a tiny part of a country four times the size of the UK. Secondly, while Bob Geldof’s impassioned lyrics may have inspired people to “give them your f***ing money”, they hardly presented a nuanced image of this enormous country. There are rain and rivers – and even navigable lakes. There are snow dusted mountains, and yes – in a country where Christianity predates the religion in Europe – there was Christmas. The song also conveniently glossed over the fact that drought was just one cause of a famine which could have been avoided if the militant ruling Derg had assisted this stricken region – rather than imposing politically-motivated agricultural reforms which resulted in starvation.

Admittedly, a tune about enforced resettlement programmes and civil war may not have been quite as catchy, but it would have been more honest. News reports showed the hungry children – but failed to ask why they were starving to death. Ethiopians today express frustration about the continued misrepresentation of their country, the ignorance of their forests, endemic wildlife, highlands and culture.

As Eskinder Hailu, Ethiopian founder of our supplier Highway Tours, says, “The country needs to be better known by the rest of the world. People know this country for a famine that happened in the 1970s and 1980s – that is the only thing that comes to mind, which is unfortunate. Ethiopia has so many things to offer. Every tourist, every client I talk to after the trip – they are amazed, and they always say the rest of the world should know about the better sides of this country too.”

So – go to Ethiopia, and give them your flipping money – not out of charity, but in exchange for the extraordinary historical, cultural and natural treasures they have to offer. And when you come back, share your pictures and stories as widely as you can to dispel the famine myth that has ravaged this nation for decades. It’s time to move on.

People & culture


Tourism in the Omo Valley

It seems ironic, given Ethiopia’s long, proud history of independence, that some of its most unique culture is now being threatened by outsiders – in the form of tourism. The Omo Valley, home to more than a dozen tribes, is one of Ethiopia’s most divisive tourist “attractions”, as the phenomenal experience of meeting tribespeople in such a remote location is tainted – or even ruined – by the perceived spoiling of their culture by tourism. Some are concerned by the ethical implications of their visit, describing the experience as a “human zoo”, the chance to gawp at “savages”, wearing animal skins and lip plates. Others feel they are being somehow ripped off – having gone to meet a “traditional” tribe they are suddenly viewed as walking ATMs, handing out birr for every photo, pressing notes into children’s palms.

Still others worry about the effects that the daily onslaught of tourists has upon the people of the Omo Valley. As the Land Rovers roll in, so too do money, alcohol, cameras, strange languages and new attitudes. Festivals are manipulated and repeated – becoming regular events rather than sporadic markers of “coming of age” – and handmade costumes are worn not in traditional ways, but in the most eye catching manner – to snare the most photographers, and the most birr. Few articles or trip reports written by visitors to the region fail to mention the words “disappearing”, “vanishing”, “last days”, “twilight”. It’s as if we’ve already taken it for granted that in the Omo Valley, tribal life will cease, and soon.

Supporters of tourism argue that in fact, tourism has actually encouraged the tribes to maintain traditions that would otherwise have been lost. Body paint wins out over jeans and t-shirts, and customs have been passed down from parent to child – does it matter if this has happened for ancient, honorable reasons – or for modern, more devious ones?

The other argument is that some tribes have now become tourism-dependent, with payment from tourists being their only reliable source of income. Withdrawing from the region could be disastrous for the communities who depend on this money to feed their families and to purchase seeds and cattle.

With so much tribal and community tourism in Africa and beyond, why have we highlighted the Omo Valley as an area of particular concern? Why are these issues more pressing here than with the tribes of Ethiopia's highlands – or the Maasai of Kenya, for example?

The difference is ownership of the tourism. Unlike in other areas, there seems to be little collaboration with the tribes, and little debate. While the Maasai were once victims of “look and point” tours, they are now landowners, who rent out their land to tour companies. Any safaris must be accompanied by Maasai guides, and the Maasai give concessions for lodges and camps to be built on their land. They don’t need to hold their hands out every time a photo is taken, as they are earning money in more sustainable ways – as guides, and as landlords. Even in Ethiopia’s highlands, community tourism initiatives provide accommodation, food and guides for visitors, the opportunity for tourists to spend time interacting with and getting to know the locals, rather than simply sticking cameras in their faces.

In the Omo Valley that hasn’t happened, and the tribes have no control over the flow of visitors and vehicles. That’s not to say they don’t want tourism, but that even those who do have little say over how it is conducted and at what rates. The only control they have is over the cost of a photograph – and this control is exercised rigorously.

To further complicate issues, a huge dam is being built on the Omo River which threatens to displace the tribes and change livelihoods beyond recognition. Though the authorities claim the local people were consulted, many communities deny this – and as many tribespeople are illiterate, they were unable to fully understand what was being proposed. Survival International campaigns against the construction of the dam, which they claim will have “catastrophic consequences”. Sadly, the dam is just one in a long line of invasions into tribal land which began with the gazetting of national parks (the tribes were evicted and lost access to natural resources) as well as land grabs and resettlements, to make way for foreign-owned cash crops such as palm oil and maize.

Arguably, their status as a powerful tourism draw could make the tribes’ case stronger, their opposing voices louder, and could discourage the creation of the dam – but the chances of this are decreasing by the day.

What do our suppliers think?

Responsible Travel continues to promote tours to the Omo Valley that are conducted by responsible tour operators using local guides. However, some of our suppliers have decided to withdraw their tours to this region. One leading supplier, Exodus, has stopped offering tours there following the construction of a new road, which will make access much easier. A spokesperson said “Many more people have started visiting and tourism to the region is becoming negative – rather than going for a special experience, the Omo Valley has become a place for tourists to simply gawk at the tribes who live there, without respecting their lifestyle and traditions.”

Lukey Bourne, from our supplier Wild Frontiers, believes it is down to the individual: “It’s not easy in the Omo Valley and it’s only going to get more difficult. It is slightly staged, but it is the only way they make money. If we’re not visiting, they’re not making any money. I’m always totally honest with people that they have to pay to click when they go to visit. It is an exchange of service – you take photos and give them money for it. It’s up to the individual as well. There are people that take cameras and literally just throw them in people’s faces; people that want photos can be very pushy. It is the individual’s responsibility not to behave like that and we put in all our notes that we ask you to be sensitive to ensure that it doesn’t turn into some sort of human zoo.”

Jane Daniell, from our supplier Alligan, is uncomfortable with the way tourism has developed in the Omo Valley: “I haven’t been to the south and I don’t want to go. It’s controversial. People want to go there, so at the moment we take people there and we use local guides. But as a company I’m not sure that we’re very comfortable with it, it’s something that we’ve been discussing. I think it’s almost too late to change, though. It’s a whole philosophy – if you go and stare at tribes, they’re going to take advantage of that, why shouldn’t they? As a company we don’t get many complaints about the hassle because we use local people. I think it works both ways. The tribes – whether they’ve benefited for the better or the worse is hard to judge, and why shouldn’t they benefit from tourism? The tourists get what they want which is pictures of people dressed up in interesting ways and with interesting culture.”

Eskinder Hailu, from our supplier Highway tours, advises tolerance for other cultures: “Some travelers expect the tribes to be naked and have body piercings and scarification, they are visiting them because they are unusual. But at the same time, when it comes to money they expect them to behave normal. But we have to be tolerant of the behaviour they show – if we accept the body piercing and the lip plates and all the other things, at the same time we should expect them to be different when it comes to money. When they see the tourist, they know the tourist just wants to take a picture. So they know that in return they should do something to get your attention.”
What you can do
If you do decide you want to visit the tribes of the Omo Valley, find out as much as you can about how the tour is conducted. How many people will be in your tour group? How long will the visit to each community last? Is a local guide used for translation and negotiation? Have the visits been discussed with tribal elders? How are the tribes compensated? Any ethical operator will have guidelines and recommendations for their guests – and will encourage them not to simply point cameras in people’s faces. Regardless of whether or not they are paying for it, viewing someone purely through a lens lacks respect, and only contributes to the image of tourists as walking ATMs.

Consider buying local crafts – so that local people can earn money from their skills, not just their appearance.

Camping next to the communities is not advised, for both safety and ethical reasons. For many tribe members, tourism is a day job; they don’t need tourists on site 24 hours a day. However, some campsites further away from community land are a good way to spend more time in the region, and to get a better insight into the challenges of living in the Omo Valley.

Lend your voice to those opposing land grabs, evictions and the eradication of tribal rights. Survival International gives a number of options, from petitions to donations and letters to politicians.

Community tourism

Cultural tourism takes many forms in Ethiopia, and true to its independent character, outside of the Omo Valley, much of it is managed by, or in collaboration with, Ethiopians. In the Simien Mountains National Park, a long-established trekking destination, there are numerous options for exploring the local culture – from local guides, to community guesthouses and locally-owned hotels. Village tours are incorporated into walking itineraries, and visitors may be able to join the villagers in a coffee ceremony or take a weaving workshop. For longer treks, responsible companies will employ cooks, guides and porters from local villages, rent mules and ensure that as much money as possible stays in the local area. Homestead tours take place in the southern regions of Konso and Dorze, and visitors can browse local markets and eat at local restaurants.

These excellent examples of community-based tourism improve the quality of life for people in remote, rural areas, reduce urban migration and encourage the passing down of traditions, as people feel their culture is being celebrated.

What you can do
Do find time for some contemporary culture on your Ethiopian vacation, rather than taking in the ancient stuff! Whether it’s a night in a village tukul, a guided trek, a village tour or just a stroll around a local market, meeting the many different communities of Ethiopia and spending money locally goes a long way. Close to a third of the population lives below the poverty line; the UN ranks Ethiopia 174th out of 187 countries on its Human Development Index. So you really don’t have to splash the cash to make quite a significant impact to the lives of rural families.
Linda Maguire, from our supplier Undiscovered Destinations, shares her Ethiopia travel advice: "We always use local guides, we don’t send people out from the UK. It’s better for the clients as well – they get the hands on input from someone who knows the area. There’s nothing nicer than walking around and someone introducing you to their brother or their cousin who happens to live there, so we try to offer that level of experience to people– not just somebody who is from Addis Ababa and happens to speak English.”

History & heritage

With many of its historic buildings, monuments and artifacts dating back well over a thousand years, Ethiopia has done an astonishing job of preserving some of the world’s most ancient treasures. But having survived civil wars and religious attacks for centuries, some of Ethiopia’s most iconic sights are not under threat.

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are not as indestructible as the solid granite they were chiselled from may appear. For centuries, the drainage ditches around the churches were filled with earth – causing severe water damage to the structures. Seismic activity has also left several churches unstable. The bas-reliefs and paintings in the churches are also damaged.*

Smaller relics, too, are at risk of one day disintegrating, as Jane Daniell, from or supplier Alligan, explains: “They’ll have a 2,000-year-old bible and they’ll just flip through it and show it to people and bring it out into the light. It makes it fascinating for tourists because they can touch and feel everything, but on the whole they’re not very good at protecting things. There’s something quite touching about a priest just picking it up and flicking through it, it makes it much more interesting than just seeing it in the British Museum. They’re still very hands-on with their own heritage.”

* Source: UNESCO

What you can do
Some churches now have temporary shelters installed above them. These are a bit of an eyesore, and not really in keeping with the surroundings – but they are an essential measure if the churches are to withstand further damage. So don’t complain!

Don’t encourage guides and priests to handle religious artifacts without due care – or to bring them out into the sunlight.

As enticing as it may be, avoid touching murals, paintings, sculptures and reliefs. There is a reason why this is prohibited in museums – and Ethiopia’s ancient churches and monuments should be treated as giant, outdoor museums if they are to be preserved.

Wildlife & conservation

The hyenas of Harar

Each night, beside the ancient city gates of Harar, one of Ethiopia’s most curious spectacles takes place. A local man sits with bags of raw meat, and begins to call out in a strange dialect. Out of the desert, spotted hyenas emerge from the darkness. The man places trips of the meat in his mouth and – to the shock of onlookers – the wild hyenas approach him and snatch the meat.

The origins of this tradition are disputed. What is known is that the hyenas have roamed Harar’s labyrinthine streets for over a hundred years, and have scavenged on the scraps left around the city. Some say that people began leaving porridge out in times of good harvest, so that they would be seen as benevolent – and in leaner years the animals would not become aggressive. Porridge made with butter is still left out for hyenas in front of shrines during religious festivals. The practice of hand (or mount) feeding hyenas is said to date back to the 1960s, when the ‘hyena men’ began feeding them meat to deter them from attacking livestock. Today, this has become something of a tourist attraction, with informal guides taking people to see the nightly feeding sessions, and tourists bringing the bags of meat. The spotted hyena is Africa’s second largest predator, and they are fearsome looking, with huge teeth and bone crushing jaws. They are in control here; they are not here against their will.

At Responsible Travel, we generally do not promote the feeding of wild animals, or encourage interaction with them in any way. However, certain cultural traditions are an exception to this. Were the hyenas not fed, they may attach livestock – which would in turn likely lead to them being shot by local farmers. The animals are habituated but remain wild, and they are not dependent on the meat; if the practice ended tomorrow they would not starve. And only small number of hyenas joins the feeding sessions.

However, we are always cautious when recommending tourists participate in such cultural traditions. This creates a financial exchange, and an incentive for feeding the hyenas which previously may not exist. More people may become ‘hyena men’ in order to earn tips, and more animals may be lured to the city, with potentially dangerous consequences. Crowds of tourists and camera flashes could cause distress for the animals, and there have been reports of tourists paying to be taken further out to feed the hyenas If they don’t show up at the gates n a given night.

Of course, these are powerful, wild predators, not tame dogs; tourists sitting beside them, taking selfies and participating in the feeding are placing themselves in danger. Some of the hyena men ensure the tourists don’t crowd the animals, others encourage interaction, as Tom Harari of our supplier, Exodus, explains: “It’s no longer tourists just going to witness the feeding of the hyenas; tourists can go and feed the hyenas themselves to have their photo taken, and even go and sit next to the hyena man who will hold a piece of meat so that the hyena climbs on the back of the tourist to get to it.”

What you can do

The relationship between Harar’s people and its hyenas is a longstanding one which seems to have benefitted both parties. If you do go and see the nightly feeding, be sure to keep your distance, and politely refuse if given the option of interacting more closely with the animals. If the hyenas don’t show up, accept it – these are wild animals. If you see anything which concerns you, speak to your guide and tour operator. Conversely, if you have a good experience, let your vacation company know so that they can continue to support the hyena men who are acting responsible towards these fascinating animals.

Responsible tourism tips

Travel better in Ethiopia

  • Ethiopia is a deeply religious and conservative country. Dress modestly wherever you travel – this means long trousers and skirts, covered shoulders and midriffs. And when visiting religious sites, women are advised to cover their heads, as Eskinder from our supplier Highway Tours explains: “When you go to the churches it’s respectful to cover your head with some cloth. It’s not mandatory, it’s not a mosque, but it helps. Just this week one of my clients was wearing a hat and she thought it was considered as a head cover, but I asked her to take it off.” Some sites may also require you to remove your shoes.
  • Though not as drought-ravaged as you may think, there is still a scarcity of freshwater in Ethiopia, so use it wisely. Short showers are advised, and don’t request towels and bedding to be washed every day.
  • The issues of photographing the tribes of the Omo Valley are well documented, but wherever you are in Ethiopia, be respectful with your camera. Never take photos without first asking permission – and preferably initiating a conversation first. And if there is some exchange – ie. you’re buying crafts or coffee from someone – then that’s even better.
  • Accept the country for what it is. Visitors come to Ethiopia to appreciate its cultural differences – but with that comes a lack of infrastructure, hotels that might not meet your standard, and the risk that not everything on your itinerary will go to plan.
“Don't expect French cuisine, German motorways, North American customer service or British Health and Safety... Ethiopia is rich in rewards but a desperately poor country at the same time. It is in need of external investment to improve things for its peoples and tourism is one way to help this.” - Vincent Buxton, from our traveler reviews
Photo credits: [Surmi women: Rod Waddington] [village: Rod Waddington] [lalibela: A.Davey] [Hyena men: A.Davey]
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