Lalibela The Promises, Pitfalls of Heritage Tourism

Heritage tourism refers to the practice of attracting visitors to a place because of its unique cultural or historical significance. In this way, the ancient town of Lalibela has been a stalwart of Ethiopia’s tourism industry. The town attracted more than 40,000 tourists in 2014. This inflow, a significant increase from previous years, helped the town generate ETB300 million in the 2013/14 fiscal year. Despite its importance for tourism, Ethiopia lags behind other countries known for robust heritage tourism, such as Egypt. To remedy this, local and federal officials together with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the local communities are pursuing ambitious development plans to make Lalibela more accessible and pleasant for tourists. However, robust development and an increase in tourist flow may be problematic for historical sites, like the rock-hewn churches, which are susceptible to irreversible damage. EBR’s Meseret Mamo visited the town to learn more about the efforts being made to increase tourist flow to the tranquil city and the potential downsides to these developments.

Despite its secluded location and mountainous surroundings, Lalibela, a small town in the Amhara State, enjoys relative popularity among tourists. The city is often regarded as the Eighth Wonder of the World because of its unique monolithic rock-hewn churches, which were chiselled from red volcanic rock in the 12th century.
In fact, the town also enjoys historical significance, as it was once a capital of Ethiopia during the Zague Dynasty, between 1030 and 1270. It now covers 7,146 hectares of land with a population of 23,303 in the urban centre and 6,930 living in the villages just outside the town.
Since Lalibela is isolated and difficult for tourists to access, regional administrators are exerting efforts to improve the situation and attract visitors, highlighting the town’s unique attractions that date back centuries. According to Getnet Yigzaw, Director of the Public and International Relations at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Lalibela relies on tourism as a main driver of economic activity. “We can’t think of attracting people to the city if not for the rock hewn churches” he says. “Without these sites, the town resides in a place with a dormant volcano and it doesn’t have fertile land.”
Lidetu Mulu, a local tour guide, agrees with Getnet’s assessment. “Our livelihood is dependent on tourists,” he says. “So we don’t want to do anything to ruin the picture of the city.”
The importance of the city and its customs become evident when observing the 11 rock-hewn churches of King Lalibela, who ruled the country in the 12 century – and while witnessing the enchantment of priests’ prayers and songs, centuries-long traditions that transport tourists to the era in which the churches were built.
Lalibela’s landmarks not only honour ancient traditions – they’re key to its success as a tourist destination. This is because historical sites and rituals help bolster a country’s tourism sector. A UNESCO World Heritage Centre report states that ancient sites remain an integral part of global tourism, citing that “[a] site’s inscription on the World Heritage List often coincides with a boost in visitation rates.”
In fact, some countries even boast that their tourism sector revolves around historic sites, a phenomenon known as heritage tourism. Egypt, one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, is host to a number of ancient sites, which attract millions of visitors each year. Even the United States Agency for International Development, which assists in the conservation of historic sites, acknowledges Egypt’s superlative achievements in heritage tourism: “Egypt’s antiquities are not only part of its cultural heritage, but also represent an important economic asset that creates jobs and income …. Tourism accounts for about 13Pct of the Egyptian economy and a corresponding amount of employment. The positive impact of tourism can be increased through enhancing linkages with other local economic employment opportunities for people in communities near antiquities sites.”
Egypt’s ability to capitalise on heritage tourism is evident in its figures. The North African nation mobilised USD7.3 billion from tourism in 2014. Their annual tourism revenue was higher before the Egyptian revolution in 2011, reaching a peak of USD13 billion in 2010. The country plans to generate USD26 billion from the sector by 2020. These figures are in sharp contrast to what Ethiopia has gained from the sector; it earned USD2.9 billion last year and plans to increase that figure to USD6 billion by 2020.
A key to the success of taking advantage of heritage tourist sites, which are often located in isolated areas, is to make them accessible and enjoyable for visitors. To that end, Lalibela officials are working to create a more comfortable experience for tourists. For example, unlike the other national destinations, the presence of beggars and vendors that bother visitors at the town’s most popular sites has diminished almost entirely. Pitter Strouza, a Polish tour leader who came with a group of 12, told EBR that this atmosphere and the architecture of the rock-hewn churches impressed him so much, even calling it “mystical” because he was able to enjoy the sites uninterrupted.
The place was not like this a few years ago. Lalibela’s beggars were large in number and the crowds would form around tourists, which was very disturbing, according to Lidetu. Souvenir vendors were also another group that used to nag tourists, he recalls. According to a 2011 study conducted by researchers at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (NGIPS), nearly 60Pct of the tourists surveyed in Lalibela said that beggars adversely affected their visit.
The trend to increase the hospitability of the town is part of a larger effort to make Lalibela a more pleasant place to visit and live. For example, ordinances were enacted to ensure the safety and serenity of the religious sites that are so crucial to the town’s appeal. “No loud music is allowed in the city after midnight [to honour] the holiness of the place,” says Getnet.
Officials from the town’s Culture and Tourism Office say that some of these efforts started taking place in 2006, when Lalibela separated from the Northern Wollo Zone and was governed by an independent administration. “After repeated discussion with the public in coordination with the [Ethiopian Orthodox] Church, as well as the private investors and the government, those who came from other woredas to beg were sent [back],” explains Getnet. “Those who were begging are being supported by the Church.”
The construction of cobblestone roads is also another big improvement, which started after 2008 in an effort to ease transportation. The once dusty and uncomfortable roads are now levelled and covered with aesthetically pleasing cobblestones. “Now elderly people can travel easily,” said Tegegne Kenaw, a tourism expert at the town’s Culture and Tourism Office.
Federal agencies are also involved in efforts to increase tourist flow to Lalibela through structural improvements. According to a 2014 report by the World Bank and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the federal government acknowledges the failure of the town in reaching its full tourism and economic potential: “The recogni[s]ed World Heritages Sites and many others of equal significance…have been economically unproductive. This is because of minimal investment funds available for product development; improved accessibility; maintenance; and development of tools enabling tourism product presentation and interpretation.”
To remedy the situation, the report says the government aims to “improve tourist services and visitor experience” in Lalibela through the strategic development of certain sites, including Tiya and Melkaqunture. The plan targets areas that are crucial to tourism development: education and job creation.
According to the document, the project, which costs roughly USD700,000, will invest in building educational facilities, including two museums for researchers, students and tourists. These developments also include “heritage conservation,” which consists of building educational signs at tourist attractions and creating site safeguards that promote the preservation of antiquities.
In addition to these, the government hopes to create jobs for locals who are involved in the tourism sector. “The new museum facilities under construction will create permanent job opportunities for about 12 professionals and semi-professionals at each of the two sites, including museum curators, conservators, technicians and security guards.” The construction of these facilities has also created jobs, with scores of locals employed on any given project, roughly half of whom are women.
The plan also articulates a commitment to support local entrepreneurs. Two art craft facilities are being constructed to accommodate roughly 80 local artisans and provide a market in which they can sell their goods to tourists instead of street vending. “Traditional crafts training [programmes] are initiated in four different product-lines that encompass pottery, basketry, woodwork and leather work.” These trainings seek to improve the quality of handicraft goods that are sold to tourists and through which these artisans earn a living.
Tourism studies suggest that local and federal administrators are taking the right steps by developing the city’s infrastructure and tourism capacity. A report co-authored by the Centre for Responsible Travel argues that infrastructure development is pivotal for emerging countries that hope to take part in the lucrative world of international tourism, which, by some estimates, generates more than USD7 trillion a year globally.
According to the study, “poor countries need to prioritise the search for capital investment to help them build the roads, airports, hotels, and leisure facilities needed to attract visitors in large numbers. Investments in human capacity are equally important. Local communities need special training to work in the international hospitality industry.”
To that end, in addition to improving the aesthetics and comfort of the city, there’s work being done to accommodate more tourists as well. Since 2008, 17 hotels have undergone construction in Lalibela. These hotels increase the accommodation capacity of hotels by nearly 50Pct. In all, 22 hotels have accommodations that total 623 rooms, amounting to 973 beds.
Such improvements have helped the town to attract more local and foreign tourists. In 2012, 28,593 foreign tourists visited Lalibela – that figure grew to 40,158 by the end of 2014, a growth of roughly 40Pct, according to data obtained from the town administration.
The number of domestic tourists has also increased. In 2010/11, there were 10,875 domestic tourists, but this number increased to 21,469 by the end of 2014/15, representing a growth of 49Pct.
Although domestic tourists often visit for religious pilgrimage, there are few, like Yoseph Kebede, who visit for the sake of leisurely vacation. For him and his family, taking a trip to different attractions within country is an enriching cultural experience. “The uniqueness of the places have piqued my interest and make me want to plan another trip here,” he told EBR.
Yoseph’s story is indicative of the distinct benefits of heritage tourism, which attracts local and foreign tourists because the educational and aesthetic advantages are hard to replicate elsewhere, unlike other popular forms of tourism in Africa, such as beach vacations or safari. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation advises places like Lalibela to take advantage of their unique ancient sites: “Capitali[s]ing on heritage assets is particularly important, since numerous studies have shown that heritage tourists stay longer and spend more than other tourists.”
This is a benefit that isn’t lost on local administrators in Lalibela, according to Getnet: “The fact that [the stone churches] were listed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1978 has made the place unique,” he says. “Since the place is one of the pilgrim destinations of the country, it has made it attractive for domestic tourists.”
These efforts have proven fruitful in other aspects of the country’s tourism. In terms of travel, Ethiopian Airlines flies to Lalibela twice a day – and local bus companies offer regular trips.
The hospitality sector is also flourishing, creating jobs for local residents. For example, a total of 1,461 people in the town are hired in tourism-related jobs, 1,380 of whom are working in places that provide hospitality services. Hotels comprise the lion’s share, with a total of 637 workers.
The sector has contributed significantly to the local economy. The town collected ETB70.9 million in the form of taxes from the hospitality sector in 2013/14 and officials say the amount increases every year. “This is a tax collected at the town level,” says Tegegne. “The seven big hotels in the town are registered under the federal government, so they pay taxes to the federal government.”
Despite such progress, Yoseph says the town still appears to be small and underdeveloped. “I didn’t expect to see a tourist attraction area that is small and poor,” he says.
Indeed, there is more work to be done to develop tourist-standard infrastructure and improve quality of life in the town. For example, there is only one medium-level hospital and one health centre in Lalibela. There are also one technical and vocational college, one preparatory school, one secondary school and six primary schools.
Developing the existing hospital and constructing more roads are the primary goals of local officials, according to Habtamu Tesfaw, Heritage Protection, Tourism and Cultural Planning, Follow-up and Evaluation Coordinator at the town administration. He says that the construction of a 100 km asphalt road, which is currently underway, will connect the town with neighbouring places. This would improve access to the city.
Additionally, Lalibela officials stress that they are working to promote the place as much as they can through deliberate outreach and media campaigns. He said they are developing cultural events like ‘Ashenda’ to attract more tourists to the city. “We are working closely with different media and film crews to promote Lalibela,” he says.
Church administrators are also doing their part, working to maintain the reputation of the town since it is benefiting from an increasing tourist flow. Besides helping the poor who previously engaged in begging, the Church also participates in infrastructure development. In the past, it constructed three hotels: Yimrha, Seven Olive and B’et Abraham. In fact, Seven Olive Hotel was the first to be built there in 1968.
There is also a fourth hotel under construction, at a cost of ETB15 million, according to Aba Weldetensay, the Chief Administrator of the 11 churches of Lalibela. He also says that the Church financed the construction of six classrooms in the only preparatory school in the town.
Still, stakeholders stress that the robust construction may be detrimental to the city’s efforts to promote tourism. Unique concerns arise when developing infrastructure in regions where heritage tourism is on the rise. This is because ancient, sacred sites are especially vulnerable to decaying, dangerous construction and need specialised maintenance and care. “We are afraid that the shelters that are made with heavy metals to cover some of the churches might fall in the near future and damage them unless something is done,” argues Aba Weldetensay. “We requested the highest level of the government to remove these shelters.”
It’s evident that the condition of some of the churches is deteriorating. Some pillars of Bete Medhanialem Church (the house of the Holy Saviour) have fallen and are replaced by stone bricks. Additionally, part of the Aba Libanos Church (house of St. Lebanon) is also demolished. Every church also has interior and exterior cracking; metal scaffolding also covers some of them, which affects the aesthetic value of these sites, a key draw for many tourists.
The difficulty in maintaining ancient, scared sites is a challenge throughout the world. In fact, according to UNESCO, it’s a central issue facing many World Heritage sites, including the churches of Lalibela. The study demonstrates that the unique maintenance challenges facing these sites can be burdensome for developing countries: “In the case of World Heritage sites, they are also aware that they are under an international obligation to maintain or restore the site’s original values. This responsibility poses difficult questions regarding the degree of change that should be permitted to accommodate tourism growth. Another problem is ensuring that a portion of tourism revenue remains in the community as a means of fostering local protection, conservation and restoration efforts.”
Still, some of the damages confronting these sites arise from natural disasters, which are difficult to control and mitigate. Lidetu says some of these damages occurred because of vibration of the earth in the region. But UNESCO, in collaboration, with the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa is undertaking maintenance projects in Bete Gerbiel and Bete Rafael churches. According to UNESCO, a number of conservation efforts need to be done to protect the rock churches from “imminent risk of collapse” and to restore the artwork in the churches due to “degradation … [that] has occurred over the last thirty years.”
Temesgen Kasahun, author of the aforementioned NGIPS study, argues that preservation and heritage tourism often have divergent goals: the former promotes conservation and the latter encourages exposure to constant risks. To remedy this tension, he argues a comprehensive approach to development and awareness-raising must occur:
“First and foremost, the tourism benefits should be extensively increased as well as fairly distributed…. to the larger community as well as for heritage conservation. Second, awareness enhancement of every stakeholder who is responsible for conservation and tourism promotion is also important. Third, the establishment of a seamless collaboration among the concerned stakeholders is necessary.”
Once this is achieved, Temesgen and other stakeholders involved in heritage tourism say that the country can better traverse the difficult terrain of increasing Lalibela’s tourism potential while maintaining its cultural and historical significance. EBR

4th Year • March 16 2016 – April 15 2016 • No. 37


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