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Ethiopia is once again in the news. With famine declared in neighbouring Somalia, an ensuing refugee problem and drought and poverty issues of its own to tackle, it is worth asking whether now is the time to travel to Ethiopia.
The reality is that Ethiopia is a large country, and the areas affected are a long way removed from the lives and locations encountered by tourists in Ethiopia. It is fascinating asking Ethiopians about their recollections of the famine in the 80s. Many have less awareness of it than we do in the UK. Famine is a regional problem in Ethiopia. Visitors are often surprised by the gulf between their vision of a famine torn country and the relatively well organised and well-schooled urban areas.
In considering whether to visit, there are two main considerations, the logistical and practical impact the events will have on your trip (will I be able to get around, will there be food and drink available etc.) and the ethical impact (will my visit in any way hinder the aid effort, will it aid the economy etc.) and it is worth dealing with both separately.
#1 The Logistical and practical implications: The logistical impact of the famine on a visit to Ethiopia at the moment is negligible (arguably non existent). The famine hit areas are a long way from the tourist trail and there will be no shortage of food or drink, the restaurants and bars will be as busy as ever serving the local Dashen and St George beers.
#2 The ethical implications: The ethical argument is necessarily more complex, but most are of the opinion that stopping visits and depriving the economy of tourism spend will only do more damage. The Ethiopian economy is at the awkward historical moment where it must shift from a primarily subsistence agriculture based economy to a more industrialised economy. With 70% of the population still living subsistence rural lifestyles, clearly there are challenges ahead. One of the best hopes Ethiopia has to minimise the brutal cultural impacts of this change on those affected is a strong and thriving tourist economy. There are no rights and wrongs when it comes to ethical judgements, but those interested would do well to read this thoughtful post on the subject of ethical judgements on where we should and shouldn't travel.