When you think of tourism in Africa, Egypt and South Africa are usually the first destinations that come to mind. If you check what ecotourism opportunities are available, it’s not hard to find vacations in the ecolodge- and wildlife refuge-laden countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, or even Botswana and Uganda.
So why did the U.S. government pledge $14 million to develop Ethiopia into an ecotourism destination?
After several home-grown Ethiopian ecotourism associations sprung up in the early 2000s, the country made a successful bid for a five-year USAID (United States Agency for International Development) grant to support the country’s ecotourism development in 2008.
With one year left of the USAID funding, here’s a look at how Ethiopia’s ecotravel scene is shaping up and what prospective visitors need to know:
USAID Grant Progress So Far
Through grant funding, sustainable tourism experts set up the Ethiopia Sustainable Tourism Alliance (ESTA) to liaise with local communities and collaborate to create local ecotourism enterprises.
Taking into account local interest, potential areas of interest to tourists like the country’s bird watching and heritage sites, and infrastructural challenges like road quality and transportation options, ESTA identified a number of specific local communities to partner with for the duration of the five-year grant funding period.
Top Ethiopian Ecotravel Destinations
In keeping with their goal to conserve and enhance both biodivesity and cultural patrimony, ESTA is concentrating on the Central and Southern Rift Valley Lakeland.
Rift Valley Lakeland
Home to the successful ESTA development in Lepis and the earlier GIZ development in Ababa Dodola, the Rift Valley Lakeland is rife with nature preserves and historic lakes. After GIZ developed rustic accommodations in Ababa Dodola, ESTA brought community stakeholders from Lepis to see what they could do with their area, and worked with them to select potential campsites within the forest and identify endemic bird species that would appeal to the lucrative bird-watching tour sector. Locals took the initiative to improve forest trails and build a bridge over the river to open up additional hiking options.
Their work, and the stories of the communities its touches, is being chronicled on Roots of Ethiopia.
Though it isn’t part of ESTA’s work, travelers looking for a safari experience — minus the heinous expense of and throngs of tourists — should check out the Awash area. Between Awash National Park, Yangudi-Rassa National Park, and the Awash Game Preserve, visitors can spot local wildlife in an unparalleled, undisturbed setting, harkening back to the early safaris in the early 1800s. Completing the experience, Village Ethiopia, an Ethiopian-owned tour company, runs a 15-unit lodge in the region with rustic reed-and-grass huts.
What Travelers Need to Know
In 2009, at the height of the global recession, Africa was the only region in the world to experience an increase in international arrivals, but Ethiopia is still slow in reaping the effects of this international interest, only drawing in 0.7% of the continent’s visitors, according to the UN.
Though the country’s ecotourism sector has seen marked growth in terms of both arrivals and offerings in the last few years, the parts of the country being developed for ecotourism are still very new to visitors.
With infrastructural concerns remaining one of the main unaddressed barriers to rural tourism, it’s difficult to travel to Ethiopia’s absolute glut of undisturbed natural areas independently.
To travel independently, you’ll need to hire your own guide and driver, but there are a host of locally owned and operated tour companies providing authentic experiences in these communities, such as Village Ethiopia and Ethiopian Airlines Journeys.
No matter your internal destination, you’ll want to fly first into the main international airport at Addis Ababa, a trip that will soon be even easier as the national carrier Ethiopian Airlines joins the Star Alliance.
Would you visit Ethiopia on an ecotravel trip? Do you think the USAID grant has done enough to develop the ecotourism opportunities there?
UPDATED NOV 2012 ESTA no longer works in tourism in Harar/Dire Dawa, and Awash.