By Oliver Smith
The tribes, known for their tattoos, body paint and lip plates, are a big draw for tourists to the region, but Exodus said the recent construction of a new road has had a negative impact, bringing in too many visitors.
“In the past the Omo Valley was hard to reach, and only a handful of more adventurous tourists would make the journey to visit the tribes,” said a 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.”
Any holidaymakers with existing bookings will be allowed to complete their trip, but no new ones will be accepted, it said.
In an article written before the recent completion of the new road – which links the southern towns of Konso and Jinka – Susie Grant, a tour guide for Exodus, said: “[The road] will bring more infrastructure to the Omo Valley – better medical and educational facilities, trading and many associated benefits – but, of course, it will mean that some of the tribal culture will be lost.”
She added: “The tribes largely welcome us but unwittingly we can sometimes behave in a culturally unsuitable way. It is important that as travellers we visit sensitive regions like this in a responsible, open-minded way.”
The Omo Valley is home to eight different tribes numbering around 200,000 people in total. A number of other operators continue to offer itineraries to the region, including Wild Frontiers and Explore. Marc Leaderman, head of group tour operations at Wild Frontiers, said he understood Exodus’s decision, but said his company would continue to visit the area, offering tours that provide an “ethical” and “authentic” experience.
“The region has long been a concern,” he said. “Visitors to the Omo are often overwhelmed, and the trading of money for photographs can feel awkward. We’re running just one tour this year, and are working hard to offer something that takes visitors away from the busy villages, and that attracts tourists who are respectful.”
He admitted that a lack of regulation and growing visitor numbers meant “the tide is against us” but said pulling out entirely “would help no-one”, including the tribes who now rely on the income that tourists bring.
Justin Francis, managing director of Responsible Travel, an agent that specialises in ethical holidays, said: “Exodus has clearly given this a lot of thought and I respect their decision – many tourists and travel companies find this a difficult dilemma.
“The real question is what do the tribal communities want? This becomes complex as the communities often do not share the same opinion. Some see tourism as an intrusion from which they see little benefit, others see it as one of the only ways to earn an income and improve their lives.
“I would limit tourist numbers and consult with the communities to determine which would like tourism, and which would not, and on what terms.”
According to human rights groups, the welfare of the tribes is also threatened by the construction of the Gibe III hydroelectric dam and “land grabs” by the Ethiopian government.
Elizabeth Hunter of Survival International, which campaigns on behalf of tribal groups around the world, said: “The Ethiopian government rides roughshod over the rights of the Omo Valley tribes, and is now embarking on a disastrous programme to forcibly resettle them. The decision by Exodus to pull out of the region sends a strong message to the Ethiopian government and aid agencies that the world is watching.”
Source the Telegraph