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Anthropologists help to advance Ethiopian tourism

26 April 2013

SOAS anthropologists are working to help Ethiopia realize its ambition to become the fifth most visited African tourism destination in the foreseeable future.

In collaboration with universities in Kenya and Ethiopia, SOAS staff and students from the recently established MA in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism, and Pilgrimage have been working to foster types of tourism that have direct benefits to rural communities and societies.  

Anthropologists help to advance Ethiopian tourism

Coffee shop in Addis Ababa, credit: Geoffrey DeVito

On the cusp of an unprecedented drive to expand tourism, the country has received some $35 million from the World Bank to develop tourism infrastructure, policy and planning.

At a meeting in Addis Ababa last week, academics and students from SOAS, Addis Ababa University (AAU), Ethiopia, and Moi University, Kenya, met with envoys, government ministers and local experts to discuss the findings of three years’ research and development work.

Jointly led by SOAS’ Tom Selwyn, AAU’s Mulugeta Feseha, and Moi’s Jacinta Nzioka the main aim of the project is to investigate the relationship between economic development, tourism and pilgrimage in Ethiopia and to encourage types of tourism that have direct benefits to rural communities and societies.  The project is funded by the UK’s Department for International Development and administered by the British Council’s DelPHE programme.

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Local street scene in Addis Ababa, credit: Geoffrey DeVito

At present, Ethiopian tourism is in its infancy, consisting of business tourism in Addis and other cities, visits to family and friends in Ethiopia from the diaspora, pilgrimage tourism to such iconic towns as Lalibela (famous rock hewn churches), Aksum (reputed site of the Arc of the Covenant), and Harar (fourth holiest city in Islam). More recently, though, interest in, and promotion of, tourism to rural and agricultural areas has increased and it was with this type of rural and community based tourism that the Addis conference was concerned.   

Ms Nzioka, Head of Kenya’s Tourism Board, said: “There are major hurdles to overcome before Ethiopia takes its place amongst more mature African tourism destinations such as Kenya and South Africa. One aim of the Addis meeting was thus to generate creative strategic policies and plans, as well as identifying appropriate projects that could help achieve the country’s ambitions.”

The meeting came up with a number of highly concrete and practical proposals. These included the following (i) the creation of at least one more UNESCO sponsored Ethiopian ‘Geo Park’ (ie an area of land of particular geological interest to potential visitors as well as benefit to local residents) (ii) the upgrading (in terms of lodges, guides, transport facilities) of recently researched tourism routes (in terms of Christian orthodox, Islamic, and Jewish pilgrimage and cultural heritage, coffee growing areas, Rift Valley flora and fauna, ancient trading routes, mountain and lakeside trekking paths) (iii) festivals such as one mounted to perform Sufi music in the city of Harar (iv) Art and handicraft production centres – to mention a few examples.

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Rural and community based tourism was discussed at the Addis conference

Dr Feseha added: “The meeting confirmed the professional skills, experiences, and capacities of its own key members and institutions – particularly the three universities involved - to come up with comprehensive strategies and policies - involving issues of investment, upgrading of tourist facilities, professionalization of tourism administration, and the placing of university research and teaching in the forefront of Ethiopia’s ambitions in the field.”   

For Professor Selwyn one of the unique features of the work is the involvement of social anthropologists in research, policy and planning. He suggested that many private sector consultants stress, above all, the economic dimensions of tourism development. Anthropologists, on the other hand, work ethnographically to tease out the relationships between tourism development and the wide range of social, cultural, religious, and political structures and processes that such development brings.