South Omo trip report

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 The prices quoted in the 2012 guide are also out of date – as a rule of thumb I would say that in July 2014 they were 50-100% higher – that goes for food, hotels, guides, and village fees.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!

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10 thoughts on “South Omo trip report

  1. gwaan says:

    I agree with this post whole.heartedly. One of our projects has for a long time been in the Turkana area, pure Dassanech land, and the exploitive nature of tourism all the way from Konso to Omorate has been made very clear to me.

    I believe it is time an influential guidebook like Bradt, for the sake of at least trying to promote a more sustainable approach, makes it clear in its relevant section that tourism in Omo is no longer the “into the wild” pristine experience it was when Philip first went there – it has been massified into a production line with serious implications -some negative, some positive, it should be said.

    All of this is in keeping up with a well-established Ethiopian tradition: to consider such peripheral areas and peoples as a “free-for-all” of exploitation. From resources to slaves in the imperial times to becomng a dumping ground for resettled peasants in comunist times, the current tourist model remains fundamentally based on a similar approach: highlanders jump in with no regard and no respect or appreciation for the locals, they see something these locals have which can make them rich (=their body image), and they exploit it mercilessly with the sacred sanctioning of the central state. There will always be a few locals willing to help out in exchange for gold-dust, of course.

    Every visitor should at least make an informed decision if they want to participate in this set-up -but they can’t without being warned about it. Are they aware that of the outrageously expensive $150 or more, a day, they spend being in Lower Omo, what percentage actually goes to the region? (Without even considering “sustainable” or “community” projects, we’ll be generous and simply say “the region). 1%-5%, no more. The rest is sucked back into Addis Ababa, usually to the benefit of a couple dozen tour operators.

    Of course it can all be balanced: 15 years ago in Omorate there were no shops, only a few northkoreans left behind -you even had to buy warm beer from the police station! Now, there are two half-dubious hotels, and a few almost-restaurants, and a roundabout, and a better road of access, and more little shops. There’s even a primary school and health posts. If the rest of Ethiopians have the right of benefit to development, certainly so do the Dassanech who consider Omorate as their kind of New York capital city. As with any development, it’s not a windfall of roses, but a challenging path full of social dilemas and many wrong choices -for them, for us, for anyone. The key difference, in my view, is the extreme gap between the power of choice over things “locals have” (zero, if they complain about anything they’re in trouble, and they do complain, and they do get sent to Jinka police station to “calm down” for it) and the one the tour operators have (absolute). The locals never asked for the tourism and have no say in how it should be handled. The local’s only benefit are, precisely, those 5 birr x photo they ask, which in their view is a fair-enough way of ripping off those unpleasant visitors from outside -Ethiopian highlanders, foreigners, it makes little difference. It has stimulated the local market -check out how much petty cash moves around in Turmi, for instance- but make no mistake, the communities in the Omo Valley are not that poor either -the few extended families who live around our camp on the shores of Turkana have, on average, about 600 + heads of cattle, which can be sold at least at 40-60 dolars a piece.

    I’m actually quite surprised at how many of the thousands of tourists a day going past Turmi, for example, know absolutely nothing about the tribes and the region, the lifestyle of the tribes and how it is influenced by the region they inhabit (compare Hamarland with Dassanechland, and then compare it to Suriland and you get a feel for the economic and social constraints they live in, and how it affects their culture and all the differences they have).

    Another tourism is possible in Omo, and it doesn’t take expensive consultants to set it up. But it certainly won’t come from the tour operators who monopolize the market (they have zero incentive to change) and it will not come from the government either, be it federal or regional. Only customer demand will slowly tip de balance and make these institutions react -if only for their own interests. And here is where guidebooks have such a huge potential for better change.

    As always, my compliments to an otherwise superb guidebook and best travels to everyone,

    Gwaan

  2. philipbriggs says:

    Hi Gwaan,

    I agree with most of what you say here per se, but it’s worth pointing out that the Bradt guide is really just the work of one individual (or at least one person per edition) trying to keep tabs on every practical and other aspect of day-to-day travel over 600 pages of coverage to a vast and less-than-easy country.

    It’s a monumental task, one that requires at least six months of intensive travel and writing every three years to produce a new edition, all done on a tiny budget, one that represents an infinitesimal fraction of the sort of sums that government tourist bodies & NGOs et al routinely spend (or should that be waste) on far less productive activities.

    I’m not sure it’s realistic to burden that one researcher/writer with the additional responsibility of becoming some kind of industry ombudsman and wading into controversial local politics that should really be dealt with by larger and more expert organisations within the country. Getting too deep into it would distract too much from the primary focus of the book, which is to provide tourists with travel information as unbiasedly as possible.

    However, the very fact that I published Erik’s post, and your comment, is in itself a way of using the guidebook, or at least a personal platform closely linked to it, to address wider concerns about tourism. (It may not be obvious, but all the update websites to my Bradt guides are my personal initiative rather than Bradt’s, and maintained in my limited spare time as a service to readers). Anybody is free to send me this sort of input at any time, and so long as it is not libellous or rude, I’ll post it!

    It is more difficult in the printed book, partly because the simple process of updating the factual and practical content is already so intensive, but I do think the updaters touch on these concerns in the current edition, to quote:

    “Tourism to South Omo, while hardly large scale, is catching on in a substantial way, and it does seem to have stimulated a vociferous and often grasping spirit of commercialism that can seriously detract from what would otherwise be a fascinating experience – indeed, as one traveller pointed out, South Omo may be an interesting place to visit, but it is not much fun to travel there. In the fourth edition a visit to South Omo was described as ‘a once-in-a-lifetime experience’. At the time this was meant to convey the uniqueness of the experience, but upon returning in 2008 and 2011 for the fifth and sixth editions, both updaters felt it took on a different meaning – if you have seen this place once, the hassles may not be worth a return!
    A related, and more serious, concern is the extent to which tourism could undermine the area’s traditional cultures. There are a variety of factors – the increasing influence of central government, the infiltration of exotic religions, the steady population growth – that will conspire to make it difficult for South Omo to remain as it is today indefinitely. Tourism, doubtless, is also one such factor, though possibly as reinforcing of traditional culture as it is destructive.”

    Moving on, I’ll be updating the 7th edition myself later in the year, will revisit South Omo in the course of it, and will definitely take the opinions expressed above into account – especially as they are not far from my own personal viewpoint, as opposed to the more neutral ones expressed in the guide. So… Watch This Space!

    Cheers, Philip

  3. philipbriggs says:

    A local operator with plenty of experience in South Omo has pointed out that many of the prices quoted in this report are actually optional or fictional (in other words the correspondent was being conned by somebody). Fir instance:

    · Key Afer market – Guide: 200 birr. Parking: 36 birr

    There is nothing called ‘Parking’ fee. Having an accompanying guide at Key Afer market is not obligatory and all depends on the client’s preference.

    · Dimeka market – Guide: 200 birr.

    Having an accompanying guide at Key Afer market is not obligatory and all depends on the client’s preference.

    · Mursi village – Guide: 200 birr. Village: 200 birr per person. Photos 5 birr per portrait.

    Park entrance fee is equivalent of 20USD per person and in addition to the Mursi village entrance fee is 100Birr per person, not 200Birr as said in the post.

    · 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 ……

    No ‘Parking’ fee as mentioned. Village entrance and boat fee is 70Birr per person, not 150Birr as mentioned. (Not sure of the 200Birr per person village entrance fee but will check.)

  4. herb says:

    The Bradt book is apolitical and a guide to visiting the country of Ethiopia giving the traveler factual information that will help them navigate this most interesting country. I don’t think it is the role of Phillip Briggs to give personal opinions about the goings on in the Omo Valley. I have been leading photography tours there since 2007 and have seen the changes. The road down gets paved further south each year and the amount of tourists/travelers grows. Many of the travelers who go down there are looking for a unique cultural experience that is authentic but yet sanitized. They haven’t bothered to do their homework at home and expect to be fed an experience that is to their liking based on western behaviors. I doubt Erik Lonnroth knows about Mingi, Omo Child, Gibe 3 dam, lack of representation in the government, wife beating, second wife necklaces. The writer of the first post degrades these tribal people and complains that he doesn’t like it when they ask him for money for a photo. Doesn’t he realize that they are allowed to make some money. Models get paid and so do these people. If he had a tour guide that knew the tribes it would have been another experience. When my group gets to the village our guide first negotiates a photography fee, then we give a group gift; bags of rice, case of water, razor blades and then we try to talk to them using our local guide as an interpreter. After that we wander around for a few hours taking photos. He mentions that he joined in the evangadi dancing, I doubt he was invited to join in. If I happened to drop into his sisters wedding would I join in the dancing. People who go down to the Omo think they can do whatever they want because they”purchased the experience”

    Does he realize that until about 25 years ago the tribes didn’t know that there were people outside of their region and in the world. He should read Mursi Online and get to rad David Turtons studies. These people live traditional lifestyles and organizing a tourist infrastructure is not a priority and the way they work. Tribes still raid each other and kill each other because of cattle theft. Catering to some farenji’s and their need for the orderly taking of photos is pretty far fetched. They are allowed to charge for photos and make Brr so that they can buy goods in the market.

    The local guys he met are not guides and saw him as a walking ATM machine. He overpaid for parking, entrance fees and every fee imaginable. Any tourists who goes to any touristic destination overpays for food, shirts, hats, beer and hotel rooms. So why is he upset that he overpaid the locals and then demeans and degrades them for drinking beer and chewing chat. That is capitalism and they saw him as an uninformed farenji. Parking at yankees Stadium in New York is $45 and they know they can get it an they do. The same thing with these guys at the market who were in cahoots with his driver; they knew they could get it and did.

    Yes, the operators are from Addis and that is only logical. Did he see any private cars driven by the Kara tribe or Hamar or Mursi. Do they have access to capital, do they go to school, do they know how to use the internet to book his plane reservation and make hotel accommodations. That he knows Amharic is great and helpful in Addis, but guess what, they speak their own dialect in the Omo. That he didn’t have a good experience is disappointing but then again he should take some responsibility for it. With a good local guide and a professional tour operator his experience would have been different. I am bringing a group in September and then another group in late October. Every person in my group will be bringing raincoats for kids, eye drops, bandages, educational supplies, matches and candles. Last year outside of Kibbish we took up a collection and went into town and bought the kids notebooks and pens and crayons. One of my local guides is Tsemai and the other from Tulgit and my tour operator is SORA Tours in Addis. My local guides are professional and take pride in showing us around the villages and markets.

    The Bradt guide to Ethiopia is excellent and I look forward to purchasing the new one when out. Phillip Briggs does a great job and I would love to buy him a cup of buns in Tomoca one day.

    • Matthias says:

      Hey Herb,

      It’s not my intention to keep on discussing about going to Omo or not, so I’ll leave that to everybody else. But your personal critiques to Mr. Erik are just begging for a response. First of all, you seem to think Erik is an ignorant, stupid ATM. Without even knowing him more than from his post, I wonder how… And why? Besides insulting him, you state the tour operator you do business with, so I wonder how your post got through Philip’s new selection criteria in the first place 🙂

      After these insults you start talking about the local culture and that it is normal to ask money for every photo, because after all, they have more important things to think about, like killing each other during a cattle fight. This argument makes completely no sense… And I think you’re again missing the point of Erik. I think Erik is trying to say that it is offputting, to say the least, to having to bargain for every step you make, every drink you consume and every photo you take. And he is absolutely wright!

      I assume it is rather straightforward for you, as a photo tour leader since 2007, to know the do’s and don’t of travelling in South Ethiopia. Do you expect everyone to be as well prepared as you? Do you always expect from tourists (also when visiting other parts of the world) to read books about the places they want to visit? Do you expect from all tourists to go in a big group (so they can negotiate a general photgraphe fee and bring kilo’s of rice) where everything is organized well in advance?

      I suppose leading a photo tour does never include taking a local bus or trying to find a place to sleep without knowing where, months in advance. Of course it has become very easy as a tourist to travel to South Omo with a tour operator, but you’re missing the strong point here: these tourists don’t need the Bradt guide! They have their own guide(s)! The Bradt guide is (in my opinion) primarily made for the backpackers who visit the country with a limited budget and travel (mostly) with public transport and without guide. And they will be very interested to read the comment of Erik, as he had to bargain himself every time, and to find places worth visiting for the money spent!

      I’m confident Erik’s post is much more informative for the backpacker, and that’s the person who will buy the Bradt guide, not the person who’s going for an all inclusive with a tour operator…

      A last point I want to make: You state “I don’t think it is the role of Phillip Briggs to give personal opinions about the goings on in the Omo Valley. “. Actually, if you read the Bradt guide, it is full of personal opinions! Especially the less visited places are just the opinion of one guy, whether you like it or not… I hope this will not deter you from buying the new Bradt guide though!

      Kind regards,
      Matthias

  5. Mat Mat says:

    Thank you very much for posting this. This is exactly the kind of information I was looking for to determine whether or not I would venture into the Omo Valley. I am really interested in learning about all the cultures of these tribes, but absolutely reluctant to be a part of this kind of tourist ‘industry’ with all its negative long-term impact on the population. So I decided to pass on it and allow more time to other parts of the country.
    Still, I am wondering if totally bypassing this whole region is a good idea, or if a trip to Arba Minch and Jinka is still worth it? Meaning, is it possible to enjoy what these towns have to offer without giving in to tour operator nonsense and other touts, and would that justify the trip from Addis Ababa?

    Any advice welcome. Thanks a lot!

    -Mat

  6. Topaz says:

    Mat, only one way to find out! And I’m going to find out in a month or two, despite or because I share exactly your thoughts. I think a lot depends also on your own interaction. At least afterwards, I hope to be able to give a genuine opinion on the matter.

    – topaz –

  7. Sally says:

    My husband and I are coming to Ethiopia in February, and we had thought it would be interesting to see South Omo, even though it has the disadvantages listed above in all comments.

    Now I am wondering if the whole experience is too off-putting? I went to Masai villages 25 years ago and though they were used to tourists, it was nothing like what’s described here.

    Any thoughts on whether it is worthwhile to go?

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