ADDIS ABEBA – Sitting on the top of the world, the Simien Mountains – Ethiopia’s highest peaks – are home to some of the country’s most remote communities and some of its rarest wildlife.
Simien Mountain National Park was established in 1969 to protect these rare species of animals that are exclusive to this area. But it is over the past few years that it has started to attract more tourists from abroad. Near the old park entrance to the mountain, there is a lodge called Simien Lodge founded by Nick Crane. The lodge is perched at 3,260 meter above sea level making it one of the highest hotels in Africa.
The owner Nick shared his thoughts with The Daily Monitor about the right way to manage the park to ensure its sustainability; what the park has to offer to the modern travellers and how to increase its revenue, and more. Excerpts:
The Monitor: You are the Director of Simien Lodge, deep in the Simien Mountains. Tell us a little about the lodge and where it is.
Nick Crane: Simien Lodge is at the old park entrance to the Simien Mountains, about 25km from Debark, the frontier town of the mountain range. It is situated where the escarpment opens out and the views become incredible. There is a two kilometer drops which leads some tourists to compare the Simiens to the Grand Canyon of Arizona.
The Monitor: And how long has the lodge been open?
Nick: The lodge had been open for about ten years in the proper sense although we did have a bit of a soft opening before that when some tour operators were pushing us to provide them with rooms.
The Monitor: Now you have been fairly active to encourage the protection of the Simien Mountains. Tell us a little about this.
Nick: The Simiens were the 2nd UNESCO World Heritage site to be created on the planet in 1978. Yellowstone National Park was the first and Simiens was second. There are over 1000 cultural and natural World Heritage sites now and actually Ethiopia has 9 sites, the most of any country in Africa. So it is important to protect these sites and I felt a real responsibility to build and operate correctly. We are in many ways one the guardians of the park and we felt that we managed tourism badly then everyone else would follow and do the same. So from the start we have operated best practices.
The Monitor: What do you mean by best practices?
Nick: Well take for example all of our electric cabling. It is all placed underground so that we protect the birdlife from electrocution. Or our water waste systems. We have two septic tanks and two soak-aways, not just one.
And I understand this extends to protecting the wildlife, is that right.
Nick: Yes from the outset we put up a notice saying, “Don’t feed the Gelada”. This is because the gelada monkeys are highly intelligent primates and if they get fed bananas or other human food then they can become invasive and actually develop diseases.
We also want to protect the Ethiopian wolf because this is one of Ethiopia’s emblem species. Unfortunately the wolves have been lost from one of the key areas of the national park that tourists visit and we do have some concerns about whether they will return.
The Monitor: Why is this?
Nick: Well they have not been seen recently around Chennuk and Bwahit Mountain, one of the main areas that the tourists visit. Wolves are very timid animals and they live in remote areas away from humans. They may have been disturbed by traffic or they may have been poached for their skins. There are probably less than 70 wolves now in the whole Simien area.
TDM: Poached? Why would they be killed and who would want to do that.
Nick: They are killed by local people for their skins because the skins have a high value. When a wolf dies from disease, then usually the body is found. When the wolves are poached, then the poachers simply destroy all trace because they don’t want to be discovered.
The Monitor: What about the Walia Ibex?
Nick: The Walia was killed for meat during the Derg time and virtually became extinct. However they are returning now in reasonable numbers. It is quite easy to see them around the 3500 to 4000 meter level.
The Monitor: What makes the Walia Ibex special?
Nick: Ibex exist in several mountains ranges of the world but here in Ethiopia they are different – they have a little beard under their chins that distinguishes them from other ibex. Tourists like to see them and this generates money for the Ethiopian economy.
TDM: How many tourists visit the Simiens and where are they from?
Nick: Before 2010 there were just 5000 tourists coming to the Simiens and now there are about 23000 every year. They come mainly from European countries and they bring much needed foreign exchange. But recently we have found that Ethiopian tourists want to discover their own country and they are coming too.
The Monitor: However I understand that you maintain that this figure cannot keep on growing. Is that right?
Nick: Yes that is correct. Unfortunately most tourists come in a period that corresponds to the European winter. They are generally senior people who are looking for winter sun as well as an interesting place to visit. This puts pressure on the single road in the park and in consequence on the wildlife. Also there are no facilities in the park such as proper toilets and you can imagine the problem that is developing with 23000 tourists a year.
TDM: You are kidding? 23000 tourists and no toilets.
Nick: Yes that’s right so wildlife comes into contact with human excrement and they could be developing diseases.
Isn’t anyone doing anything about developing infrastructure such as toilets?
The park entrance fee is far too low at the moment. Just 90 birr and 20 birr for a 12-seater bus. This small amount of money gets channeled back into the federal pot and not enough is returning for infrastructure building. The park is only earning about 2 million birr and nothing actually returns.
The Monitor: What would you like the figure to be then?
Nick: I think a tourist would be happy to pay 1000 birr to enter the Simien Park if there were things like proper toilets. However I would put the major emphasis of the buses that drive in the park. I think a fee of 3000 birr for buses would be appropriate and the reason for this is that the buses pollute. So this would produce an annual income of about 25,000,000 birr. I would then advocate that half of it gets reinvested into the park and the other half goes to the federal or regional pot.
TDM: But if they raise the prices for tourists to enter the park, wouldn’t this discourage tourists from coming to Ethiopia. And are you not going to lose income for your lodge if tourists don’t come?
Nick: No, not at all. By increasing the price of the park entrance you put an added value on the park. Tourists then perceive that the park must be special and worth visiting. It will only encourage more tourists to come to Ethiopia. This has been proven time and time again in tourism. If you make a place expensive, tourist then respect the destination and want to visit. It also makes them more environmentally friendly because they then value the place that they are seeing.
The Monitor: So let’s move on to the environment because I know that you hold some strong views about this.
Nick: Yes, if the environment that a tourist is visiting is not respected then it loses its value and they no longer want to visit. But it goes much further than that. All people prefer to live in clean places and this helps create civil obedience and gives people a pride in their region or country.
The Monitor: And in the case of the Simiens this goes hand in hand with protecting the wildlife. Is that right?
Nick: Yes that is correct. If the Simiens are clean and free of pollution (especially paper and plastic pollution) then tourists will pay a higher price to visit. This is what I mean by added value.
The Monitor: Now, I understand that there is no plastic pollution at all in the Simiens. It has to be the only place in Ethiopia where this takes place. Why is that?
It is because we have been very active with the scouts, the guide association and the local children to make sure that the Simiens are kept clean.
TDM: So what have you been doing to achieve this?
Nick: For example, Every six months we close our lodge to tourists over a weekend and we invite about 200 local children to be our guests. At first they were in awe of coming to the lodge because they are just the local children from the countryside. However now they want to come and learn from us about the environment, the wildlife and the beautiful place that they live in. We give them all a tee-shirt with a slogan like “I’m protecting the Simiens” or “Save the Ethiopian Wolf”. We then play lots of fun games with them and then in the afternoon they have classes designed to teach them about the environment.
The Monitor: So it is the children who are keeping the Simiens clean?
Nick: Yes that is right. It is the children and the scouts who are now picking up any trash that is found in the park. Actually the tourists don’t drop litter when they see that a place is clean so it is self-policing. I should mention that we also get assistance from the Gelada Research Team who works around Sankabur in the park. They want to keep the park clear of trash so that the gelada do not develop diseases. So they have been instrumental recently in building new trash pits.
The Monitor: Do you have some Conservation Classes coming up soon?
Nick: Yes. We are holding them again over the 24th and 25th of February and once again 200 lucky children will be invited. However 200 children is nothing when you think about the population of Ethiopia so now we want to expand this idea to other areas of the country and even to the towns.
The Monitor: So how are you going to do that?
Nick: Perhaps you in the media have a role to play in this by spreading the word that Ethiopia needs to be clean for everyone to live in and for tourists to visit.
Editor’s Note:This Interview appeared on the print version of The Daily Monitor newspaper in February, 2019