Erik Lönnroth writes:
I just got back from a 9 day trip to Omo and would like to provide a few updates. All in all, I would not recommend this as a travel destination, with the possible exception of researchers looking for a case study in tourism mismanagement. The Bradt 2012 guide mentions that this is a “once in a lifetime experience”, but these days for all the wrong reasons. I would go one step further: it is questionable whether a visit to this region should be recommended at all – and that goes for both organised tours and independent travel. As someone who has lived in Ethiopia and several other African countries, I assumed I would be able to use basic Amharic and street smarts to sidestep the herds and discover my own, more authentic, experience of Omo. I was wrong. No matter how noble your intentions, you’ll find it nigh-on impossible to avoid the prescribed itineraries forced on you by the guide associations that guard the gates of every attraction like a local mafia. The prices quoted in the 2012 guide are also out of date – as a rule of thumb I would say that in July 2014 they were 50-100% higher – that goes for food, hotels, guides, and village fees.
As mentioned in the Guide, several of the tribes have developed an obsession with getting money from photos. For the Mursi and Dassanech, this behaviour now verges on OCD, with some variation of “photo”/”5 birr”/”you take a picture” constituting 100% of interactions with the villagers. One gets the sense that the tribes people harbour few warm feelings towards foreigners, and with every right; their villages have been transformed into human zoos, with no area – including the insides of their huts – off limits to snapping cameras. With the exception of very young children who have yet to be corrupted by the faranji hysteria, you are unlikely to establish much of a human connection during your visits. An exception to this rule was the Evangadi dance, put on one evening by a Hamer village near Turmi, in which we danced and sang with the people in what felt like a genuinely upbeat and friendly experience.
As mentioned, Omo prices have increased substantially since 2012. Several experiences feel like complete rip-offs, particularly the charges imposed by guide associations, who typically demand 200-300 birr for activities that last an hour or two. As each attraction is controlled by a separate association, a new guide is required – and thus a new charge – at each stop. The “guiding” element tends to be non-existent – these young men typically exhibit an air of disdain for both faranjis and the tribes, and seem thoroughly uninterested/incapable of explaining anything but the most banal facts (“this is the hut where the people sleep”, “they wear clothes of animal skin”). After collecting their fees the guides return to chewing chat and drinking beer, waiting for the next busload of tourists. Haggling is impossible – fees are supposedly set by government and a receipt is duly presented. Where the money actually goes – other than to beer and chat – is anybody’s guess.
Here is an update on pricing at each of the attractions I visited (bear in mind that July is supposedly low season):
Key Afer market – Guide: 200 birr. Parking: 36 birr.
Dimeka market – Guide: 200 birr.
Mursi village – Guide: 200 birr. Village: 200 birr per person. Photos 5 birr per portrait.
Dassanech village – Guide: 300 birr. Boat 150 birr. Parking 36 birr. Village: 200 birr per person. (Note that this ends up being roughly triple the price quoted in the Guide. The Dassanech are also the worst of all the tribes when it comes to asking for photos – we literally had to flee the scene when we refused to take our cameras out. A bridge across the Omorate river is due to open in a few months, which will make it possible to avoid the jacked-up boat fee, and possibly reach more remote villages. However, it will probably be a matter of only weeks or months until those villages become just as corrupted by faranji fever).
Evangadi dance (Hamer tribe) – Guide: 200 birr. Dance: 200 birr per person.
Budget hotels in Konso, Jinka, Turmi, and Dimeka typically charge 250-300 per room with cold shower, although one one or two occasions we were able to haggle it down to 200 (due to it being low season).
You’ll easily end up spending $50 per day on accommodation, food, and activities, and that’s not counting the driver and 4×4, typically $120-$150 per day. Total expense for a trip: Minimum $1,500 but more likely $2,000+. There simply is no way to do Omo on a shoestring – the government, guide assocations, and tribes have made this literally impossible.
All in all, I can think of much more enjoyable and less exploitative ways of spending that kind of cash, in Ethiopia and beyond.
Thanks for reading!