Exodus abandons Omo Valley tours

Oliver Smith has just published a news story on Telegraph Travel announcing the Exodus has suspended all trips to the Omo Valley in Ethiopia over concerns about the exploitation of the tribal communities that live there. The diverse tribes of the Omo Valley have been heavily visited by tourists lured by their body art and in particular the lip plates.

As is so often the case the building of a new road, linking the towns of Konso and Jinka, has increased the numbers of tourists arriving. Oliver quotes an anonymous spokesperson
“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.”

The road will bring development, improved access for tourists means easier access to medicine and education and more opportunities for trade. The road may have been built to facilitate sugar farming.  The BBC carried a report back in June alleging that tens of thousands of local people were being displaced from their land in the Omo Valley  to make way for state-run sugar plantations. The sugar plantations are reported to be irrigated with water from the controversial Gibe III hydro-power project. more

Other operators will continue to organise tours to the Omo Valley, Marc Leaderman of Wild Frontiers told Oliver Smith whilst he understood Exodus’s decision, they would continue to visit the area, offering tours that provide an “ethical” and “authentic” experience.

There are 2000,000 people in eight different tribes in the Omo Valley, they do not all want the same things. They are also unlikely to want what the tourist wants.

Many of them see the tourists as a crop, a source of money. Particularly where the tourists wants a photograph, they quite understandably think that the tourist should pay for this. When tourists  are reluctant to pay, or try to avoid paying the local community will become more aggressive demanding payment. Paying for photographs makes tourists, well some of them, feel uncomfortable but it is the living culture of the tribes of the Omo Valley which attracts the  tourists. The lip plates and body art has value – captured by the tour operators, guides and transport and accommodation providers – one of the few ways that local people can benefit is by hawking crafts or demanding payment for photographs of their bodies and their culture. The juxtaposition of the extreme wealth of the tourists, in time and cash, with the economic poverty of the local people is stark and uncomfortable on both sides.

Susie Grant writes on the Exodus website that “OMO VALLEY is a wonderful experience but get in quick before it changes!”

The individual guide and the tour operator aspire to organise their group’s experience in a responsible way. As Susie writes “It is important that as travellers we visit sensitive regions like this in a responsible, open-minded way. We will continue to use tribe guides alongside experienced Ethiopian guides and we feel happy to continue to visit the Omo Valley.”

Clearly things have changed and Exodus has pulled out.  It is hard to stop tourism degrading local cultures once the tourists arrive in sigifnciant numbers, and tourism is rarely the only cause of cultural change, often it is not the main cause.

The people who live in the Omo Valley have been exploited by tourism for years, the situation now, for some, is intolerable. It is difficult to avoid begging, hawking and crowding, a degree of cultural conflict is perhaps inevitable. It is even more difficult to repair the damage although Adama Bah’s work with the local community in Juffureh demonstrates how with strong political leadership and stakeholder engagement the tourist experience can be improved for both hosts and guests. more


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