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The problems of diversification of ecotourism products in Ethiopia

The vision that the government of Ethiopia has set to bolster tourism in the country – as one economic development sector – has a long way to go. It has been announced in the vision statement that the government has strong commitments to mainstream tourism in the country’s development agenda in order to ensure economic growth, image rehabilitation and poverty reduction. The late Prime Minister of the country, Meles Zenawi, was heard in an African Union meeting convened in April 25, 2005 overstating the increased focus his government has on tourism in order to utilize the sector as a development tool to reduce poverty in the continent of Africa, that is far beyond in Ethiopia. It has been 15 years since the government avowed strong commitments to develop the sector, but are there strong achievements recorded on the balanced score sheet of the business plan?  Is there congruence between words and deeds?

Tourism development in Ethiopia is unable to show progress as no newer products are being added on or no expansion of existing ones has been appreciably made hence, the sector has succumbed to low performance. Of the root causes of this stagnation, ineptitude of the sector in ecotourism product diversification is the most significant one. That the government aspires to harvest more tourism gains without adding significant new tourism products on to those discovered earlier is paradoxically a fantasy.  How the government can sustainably develop tourism and utilize for economic growth, image rehabilitation and poverty reduction to achieve the stated vision is therefore, obscure.

Another root cause of stagnation of tourism gains in the country is the insidious harmful effects of the malicious political activism polluting the country’s pool of tourism treasury. Since the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took control of the country, reputed tourism assets particularly those in the domains of the rich history and culture of the people have suffered indignities. Arrogant politicians, having no respect for the people, disgraced valuable historical and socio-cultural features without regard to the tourism values embedded in them. Four scandals, inter alia, explained here under can be taken into justification of how seriously government-mediated degradation of heritages had surfaced in the country during the last 27 years.

The statement, “Ethiopia, an island of Christianity” has served as the most popular tourism drive ever since the publishers of an encyclopedia picked it up from the diaries of foreign travelers that visited the country long ago. However, this magnificent statement was frequently presented to fora organized for political discussion seemingly to get the statement erased from the pages of the encyclopedia. For the unbiased mind, the impressive statement reflects the travelers’ appreciation of one of the interesting features of the country as per their observation that remains today as a reflective written record. Absolutely, there is no harm in this biogeographic concept, but it has become a lucrative topic for hair splitter ethnic partisans and religion-based business entrepreneurs with lust for breeding enmity between the Christian and Islam followers to harvest hidden interests out of the conflicts of people.

Literally, an island is a piece of land that is surrounded by a body of water. It is expressed in terms of the complementarity of land and water body. Let we say, in this analogy of the travelers, the land expresses the highland inhabitants, the majority Christians and the water body expresses the Muslim lowland majority or vice versa. Or in another context, let’s say the travelers had recognized Ethiopia at that time as a Christian kingdom in the Horn of Africa surrounded by other countries of Islamic Kingdoms. In either context, the “island” imagination of the travelers about Ethiopia does not characterize one religion side more significantly than the other except its complexion adores both equally. One cannot imagine an island without a visible interface between land and water body. Furthermore, the religion interface that was perceptible for the travelers does not exist today due to the integration of the religious groups sideways through marriages and all forms of interactions as it has been so between neighboring countries due to globalization and regional economic integration. The people lived in harmony over millennia against the incessant external and internal pressure working to dissociate this cohesive force of the unity of the people which we become borne to.

“Thirteen Months of Sunshine” was the most famous tourism brand that had first introduced and long popularized the country’s tourism industry to the world. Track records of our tourism advertisement endeavor informs that this iconic phrase was a source of wonder attracting foreigners from all over the world since it uniquely describes the country as possessing a unique calendar in the world. It’s replacement with “origin” doesn’t make sense, perhaps it makes sense for the bottled water advertisement. By any reasonable measure “origin” can’t be a substitute for the already established distinguishing historical and cultural icon of the country, “Thirteen Months of Sunshine”.  “Origin” is presumably fragile and likely to suffer loss of significance following a potential update of the location of the oldest hominoid fossil.

A legacy of great tourism value that couldn’t escape the attack of wicked politicians has been the antique history and age of the Ethiopian state formation known world-wide as spanning over 3000 years. As the EPRDF seized control of Ethiopia prevailing disrespect for the history of the country reached its peak. Out of spite, the Front cut down the age of the ancient independent state of Ethiopia from over 3000 years to 100 years based on a day dream of the Front’s leaders. Ethiopia, with a history that goes back eons, endows its citizens with pride, not shame. Then why should one try to reduce its age to less than the age of an old man. It is obscure to understand why one yearns for no or poor national history.

The other most surprising scandal is the redefinition of the ownership of the Axum Obelisk.  On the occasion of the recent repatriation of part of the obelisk from Rome, it was shamelessly uttered that the obelisk meant nothing to the Wolayita, Hadiya, etc. people of Ethiopia, but only to the surrounding people, the Axum residents or Tigrayans at large. What a hazardous tongue slip of a politician. Political discourse irresponsibly voiced through media insidiously disrupts the wonderful common history of the Ethiopian people consequently decreasing the tourism value of heritages. This sly discourse is credited to the “visionary leader” that purportedly announced the focus his government has on tourism as a development tool to reduce poverty in the continent of Africa at large. It seems that sheer ignorance about the scripts engraved on the obelisk and the association with the history of the Ethiopian people had disabled him to know that the obelisk is meant more to the Ethiopian people all together, far beyond the villagers. Though this redefinition of the obelisk by the late PM is unconditionally groundless, its repercussion, however, hurts the country by announcing to foreign tourists the dissociation of the historical heritage and the Ethiopian people.

Such unexpected historical distortions and acts of denial is far beyond description. Let’s just say that the EPRDF is a “parasite”, perhaps this word may offer adequate description of it. Oh! even this one doesn’t work. One of the principles of parasitism is that a parasite never kills its host, so the EPRDF that killed Ethiopia for satisfying its narrow partisan agenda is even worse than a parasite, hence it is a pathogen or a malignant tissue. At present the pacemaker that began the race for the destruction of Ethiopia [EPRDF] has confessed to its evil track records of profound hatred for Ethiopia, though how it can remove the scandals it is held responsible for to repair the damages incurred to the legacies of the country and unity of the people is unknown.

While this is a big deal for Ethiopia, there are political parties that are still occupied in destroying the country copying the run of the EPRDF. These parties are either replicates of the old pacemaker or emergent parties aspiring to enjoy benefits from the lucrative ethnic partisanship politics in Ethiopia in another turn of history or others that emerge to balance chronic ethnic partisanship in defense of Ethiopia. The advice to the people of Ethiopia is to become aware of this aged and hated style of politics in Ethiopia and uphold the direction of political change that has been launched in the country in its true sense.

As it has been clearly observed, the dynamics of ethnic politics in Ethiopia serves neither the people of the ethnic groups around which the partisans circumscribe themselves nor the Ethiopian broad masses. It only serves the satisfaction of ethnic partisans staying bedridden because of ethnics’ politics syndrome. Ethnic partisanship is just a horse that notorious village politicians ride on to gallop fast to take control of the Menelik II Palace. They neither have an all-embracing political ideal nor are they sure of winning elections in the wider Ethiopia.

True to form, the EPRDF government had no concern for tourism development in Ethiopia. People travel long distances as tourists to observe relics of antique civilization and rich cultural traditions of local people. In the absence of courtesy to the country’s unique historical, social and cultural heritages, which serve as the backbone of tourism, how can the EPRDF say that tourism has been on focus positively? A legitimate government of Ethiopia must at least have respect for the legacies of the country. It must protect the legacies from violation, deconstruction and erosion. It seems that the goose that lays the golden eggs has been killed.

When it comes to the country’s rich biodiversity, detailed description can be provided on this biological resource intertwining it with the exciting history and rich culture of its people.  Although not much effort has been hitherto made to exploit the vast biological resources and associated indigenous knowledge in utilizing them as source material for tourism product development, it has great potential. Ethiopia is home to several rare endemic wildlife besides being a country that has contributed to the world important germplasms like coffee, enset, teff, barely etc. and associated indigenous knowledge developed along with the traditional use of these germplasms. In order to achieve the stated vision statement, the diverse biological and biocultural wealth can be integrated with our cultural traditions and historical records to develop tourism products.

Effective tourism product development is achievable when a country develops and implements a well-founded tourism master-plan capable of exhaustively locating and utilizing its diverse tourism potential where the grassroots communities get involved in the tourism product development and marketing endeavors. Whilst this is a good idea, however, its implementation stipulates the presence of a modernizer of tourist operation so to speak; an active Ministry of Culture and Tourism in the country. Genuine critique of the comparative performance of the said Ministry ranks the Ministry of the Imperial regime as a champion with respect to concrete contributions made to develop the sector. With its inevitable replacement by the Military regime, it started to decline and during the EPRDF, it became rather worse, so to speak, remaining dependent on attractions which our ancestors had already discovered for us. Hence, since the Emperor’s time tourism in Ethiopia has been dormant.

It is clear as well that the success of the tourism economy depends not only on the pace of a single government body. Experience of developed countries shows that progress in tourism can be made if all stakeholders of tourism act synergistically in creating new tourism products for ultimate transfer to the main operator [the Ministry of Culture and Tourism] for registration and promotion. The stakeholders of tourism are many, but educational and research institutions have a huge role in generating and offering marketable tourism products.  One may ask how mush have these institutions contributed to achieve the vision that the government has for tourism through creation and incubation of tourism products? The knowledge Addis Ababa University transferred to the new generation of universities in regards to preserving old legacies and develop new ones must be questioned. How are higher education institutions addressing tourism issues in their annual workplans? How sufficiently has the Ministry of Culture and Tourism directed the institutions to incorporate tourism activities in their annual plans? etc. have to be questioned.

Indeed, our biodiversity wealth, and the associated indigenous knowledge are additional fertile substrates for tourism product development. Cognizant of this, the country had marked the World Tourism Day on September 27, 2010 under the theme: “Biodiversity and Tourism in Ethiopia” perhaps with a view of enhancing sustainable tourism development using biodiversity and the associated indigenous knowledge as resources. That year, the theme was used to mark a day that normally came and went every year. But several months before the 2010 event, I had submitted a 150-page booklet titled: “Tapping tourism from biodiversity” to the Minister of State of the time, seeking some financial support for its publication. However, the Ministry was not willing to cover the publication cost that was tantamount to the refreshment cost payable for a single health break expenditure. After licking the cream of the booklet, the Minister of State referred me to the Minister. The then Minister sent the booklet to the then PM and President of the country, to no avail. Later on, he withdrew his request realizing that there was no common aspiration for a common country and no intersecting goal.

The purpose of talking about a failed application for small grant is not to blame anyone – deceased or alive – but to substantiate that tourism has not yet received due attention in the national development plan except for the verbose coverage in state-owned outlets. In addition, it is to show how much some of our officials are impervious to innovative tourism ideas. Perhaps this generalization could be a biased person’s judgement. Ok, let’s ask one important question. What concrete work has been done to date since the Ministry heralded the “biodiversity-tourism” motto? An empty motto cannot cascade biodiversity-related tourism products into the Mayonnaise Jar unless dressed with knowledge-based strategic plans that trickles down to the grassroots. The driver of the tourism wheel, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, must coordinate the operation of tourism promotion through effective policy direction, catalogue tourism data base and map sites to locate new features and expand pioneer tourism products, adapt innovative ideas enhancing the development of new products, emphasize tourism indoctrination and dissemination of information, guide investors, institutions and all stakeholders on how new ideas could open new avenues of tourism products development.

Ed.’s Note: Hussien Adal Mohammed (PhD), Associate Professor, Department of Biology, College of Natural Sciences, Wollo University, is the author of two books titled: ‘Language and Ethnicity’ and “Biocultural Tourism”, a peer-reviewed book that focuses on the diversification of tourism products drawing from the binary diversity pool: biodiversity and biocultural diversity. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Hussien Adal Mohammed