From Ethiopia to Australia, the Promises and Pitfalls of Tourism for Good

By Reuters
November 11, 2019 Updated: November 11, 2019

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia—The opening of Ethiopia’s once-secretive imperial palace complex has been hailed as symbolizing a new era of openness for the East African nation, but it also has another aim—job creation.

The Menelik palace and its 40-acre Unity Park compound overlooking Addis Ababa opened to the public in October after being closed for more than a century when it housed emperors, but was also used as a torture site under the communist Derg regime.

It was established in 1887 by Emperor Menelik II and given back to the city by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power 18 months ago. The move “symbolizes our ability to come together,” while also boosting tourism and jobs, his office said.

The palace opening was cited at an annual gathering of social entrepreneurs in Addis Ababa as an example of a rising number of tourism businesses set up with a mission to help local communities—with warnings that the projects came with risks.

“[The palace] will add value to our tourism … it will help Ethiopia,” said Samrawit Moges, founder of Travel Ethiopia, the first company in the country to use female guides. “But tourism is a very delicate sector that can change the country for better or for worse … we need to give high importance to the environment.”

The growing social enterprise sector is tapping into the global travel and tourism industry, which contributed a record $8.8 trillion and 319 million jobs to the world economy in 2018, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).

The WTTC has forecast another 100 million new jobs by 2029.

A baby mountain gorilla in the Sabyinyo Mountains of Rwanda. (Ivan Lieman/AFP via Getty Images)

Dangers of Growth

Matt Pfahlert, co-founder of the Australian Centre for Rural Entrepreneurship, said growing numbers of tourism projects from Australia to Africa are being led by social enterprises—businesses set up with a mission to help society.

There is no official record on the number of such ventures.

Pfahlert led a $1.7 million community buy-back of an old jail in his home town of Beechworth, in the Australian state of Victoria, that was famed for its connection to the nation’s legendary outlaw Ned Kelly.

It opened in 2017, creating 22 jobs in a rural area with few opportunities and helping raise funds to train young people on business development to stem a decline in rural areas.

“For us the jail is the engine for a national project,” Pfahlert told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the 12th annual Social Enterprise World Forum.

“If we get it right we can make a huge difference,” said Pfahlert, adding that cycling tours are another draw.

He said tourism social enterprises focused on helping communities, while traditional tourism businesses tended to be profit-oriented with a focus on volume growth.

In Ireland, for example, the social enterprise My Streets trains homeless people to run tours of Dublin and Drogheda.

While in India, Grassroutes aims to create “one million livelihood opportunities” and reduce rural migration by running various tourist activities in villages outside Mumbai.

But tourism social entrepreneurs said in the rush to do good, it’s important to be wary of not growing too fast, as this could negatively impact communities and the environment.

Theodore Nzabonimpa, founder of Beyond The Gorilla Experiences in Rwanda, said it had been important to stem the number of tourists visiting the mountain gorillas in his country by doubling national park prices in 2017 before damage occurred.

“The risks can be huge even if the intention is good … you have to take quick action to address any risks,” said Nzabonimpa, whose tour company promotes community ecotourism.

By Belinda Goldsmith