ETHIOPIA: Archeology and paleontology to boost tourism revenue

Bilen, 12 January 2004 (IRIN) - Scientists describe Ethiopia as the cradle of humanity. It is home to perhaps the most famous prehistoric remains ever found, and the world’s oldest human remains. Now the country is turning to its prehistoric finds to use them as a catalyst for promoting tourism as a means of boosting its development.

Teshome Toga, the minister for youth, sports and culture, told IRIN that harnessing the potential of these prehistoric sites was vital to generating desperately needed income. "The key is using this science for our development," he said. "We need to make use of the resources we have for the benefit of the country."

The initiative – which has been dubbed pale-tourism - has won the backing of some of the world’s leading paleontologists, who believe that significant revenues can be raised. Prof Bill Kimble, whose team is excavating Hadar, a site in Afar region in the northwest where the 3.4-million-year-old old skeleton of Lucy was found, says "responsible tourism" is key.


He warned, however, that in the absence of proper management and effective regulation, the sites could soon be plundered of fossils, thereby rendering future analysis impossible. "We must control and protect the resources that we have and that will need to be exploited scientifically well into the future," Kimble said. "We need to think globally, but act locally. We need to think about the problems tourism raises and can solve, and then implement them locally so that everybody can benefit from the local people on up."

His concern is shared by other leading paleontologists. "These sites are extremely fragile," said Prof Tim White, whose team recently announced the discovery of the skull of the world’s oldest human, scientifically known as Homo sapiens, dating back 160,000 years. "A few collectors, just a few, can strip them of fossils and put those fossils on the black market very quickly unless there is strict regulation," he warned.


According to experts, Ethiopia’s discoveries chart man's prehistory from his first use of tools more than 6 million years ago to our modern ancestors. The country has at least two of the most important prehistoric finds – Lucy and Idaltu, the Homo sapiens skull.

Prof Kimble said educating local people was key to ensuring that they were aware of the value of the sites and how they could benefit from them. He added that plans were under way for a first-ever Lucy museum near to where her remains were uncovered. The center would be set up by the end of the year.

Some 32 archaeological teams, comprising paleanthropologists, geologists and archaeologists, are working country-wide. Many of the key finds originate in Afar, one of the country's most impoverished regions, in the heart of the Rift Valley. Tourism officials in Afar believe that by properly harnessing the region's tourism potential they could bring in an additional US $2 million in revenue annually for this region alone.

Ethiopia also has seven United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation World Heritage Sites, which serve as a magnet to the increasing numbers of tourists visiting the country. Among top attractions are the ancient obelisks of Aksum dating back 2,000 and 3,000 years and the centuries-old rock-hewn churches in Lalibela. The tourism commission says the prehistoric sites which minutely record human evolution will act as the additional pull needed to attract visitors.


Dr Theodros Atlabachew, the national coordinator of Ethiopia’s cultural heritage preservation project at the tourism commission, conceded that tourism was in its infancy, but by developing the relevant skills and infrastructure available to the industry enormous revenues could accrue from it.

"Ethiopia’s wealth of varied attractions give it a great potential for tourism," Altabachew said during a conference held at one of Ethiopia’s first-ever eco-lodges in Bilen in Afar. "We have to compete with other countries who can also offer wildlife and historic sites, but what makes us special and is one of the unique tourism products for Ethiopia is paleo-tourism. Our sites are highly publicised, but as yet only a handful of visitors come."

The plans for paleo-tourism were unveiled at a milestone three-day conference in the heart of Afar held by the ministry of youth, sports and culture, according the tourism commission and the privately-run Walta Information Centre.

But the Ethiopian Tour Operators' Association (ETOA) told IRIN that the sector needed a complete overhaul before any more tourists would come to the country. Woldai Kidanu, the ETOA vice-president, said poor infrastructure and shabby hotels were putting off some foreign visitors.


Tourism is seen as an important weapon in the fight against poverty. Last year, tourism brought in more than US $77 million, according to the tourism commission. It also plays a key role in the government’s poverty reduction strategy paper.

The commission says that over the next three years the country’s infrastructure and tourist service industry, such as catering and hotels, will be improved. It noted, however, that despite difficulties, the number of foreign visitors had increased by more than 30 per cent in a single year - up 40,000 on the previous year to 156,000.

However, tourism had been severely dented by the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea, with thousands of potential visitors deciding to stay away. Thus, the country had only 109,000 visitors in 2000, who had spent about US $16 million.

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