Hiking, in simple terms, is the activity of walking in nature as a recreational activity. Despite the recent origins of the term, the origins of hiking are hard to pinpoint due to obvious reasons. In Ethiopia, the activity that falls under that term has been practiced for a long time spearheaded by hiking-savvy members of the expat community. A few decades ago, some of these disparate movements got together and formed informal groups that embark on hiking trips regularly. Up until a few years ago, these groups were small in number and so was their footprint among recreational activities in the country.
But as data prices were slashed successively and more and more people got online, it became a lot easier for people to organize along shared interests. This was significantly aided by the rise of the quasi-social media platform Telegram which made starting one-to-many and many-to-many platforms online easier than ever (3 taps, in fact) resulting in ever more interest-based groups to spawn in the online community. Many of these were dedicated to the arts, some to education, and even more to a long list of niche interests, and among these niche interests were groups dedicated to organizing hiking trips to places outside of (but close to) the capital, Finfinnee. This development would change the face of tourism in the country.
Of course the first hiking groups utilizing Telegram were those that already had presence on other platforms and had existed for much longer. But soon enough, many people figured they only needed to set up a group/channel (as one-to-many platforms are known as) on Telegram of some of their contacts to see if some would be interested to take part in this activity together. It wasn’t long before the activity proved popular among the urban youth and aided with the ease of communication the digital platforms offered, hiking became a mainstay of urban recreation.
The Thing About Hiking
Now hiking has a few elements that make it the go-to recreational activity for many young people. One is the fact that the activity of walking in nature is something the human brain enjoys immensely as demonstrated in a Stanford University study
. Another reason, and something more relevant to young people of today, is that hiking can be a very low-cost activity. With the exception of the time one needs to allocate for the activity, it is possible to go for a hike and not spend any money. Even with the added cost of travel to the hiking trail outside of the town (Entoto, Erer, Suba, Wanchi, etc. in the case of Finfinnee), hiking is still much cheaper than any other forms of recreation, especially in Finfinnee where prices of goods and services have been soaring. Hiking is also a very social activity. In Ethiopia, hiking is rarely done alone or even in small groups and usually involves groups of more than 15 people traveling to a hiking trail and returning together once the hike is complete. While hiking, people get to know each other, to have conversations with kindred spirits, to socialize and even make lasting friends. These three factors have together made hiking an irresistible activity for a large section of the youth living in urban centers and especially Finfinnee.
Coming back to hiking groups, it should be noted that any form of legal registrations and organizations are not the norm. Hiking groups rarely have offices and they don’t keep any form of records. In fact, what many take to be hiking groups are just online groups moderated by one or two people who organize hiking trips semi-regularly. It is with these factors in mind that we look at what opportunities hiking brings to tourism in this country and in Oromia.
So far, hiking groups have shown themselves to be extremely adaptable. A new hiking trail one group discovers is quickly adopted as the next destination by many others, new activities are added to the hiking trips of many groups following experiments by one, and the trips have been getting richer in experiences as hiking groups race to add as much value to their itineraries to stand out in the reasonably competitive market.
But these groups have also not been without their fair share of weaknesses. Since organizing a hiking trip does not require any upfront cost and anything that needs to be purchased or booked is only processed after trip goers have already paid for their spots, many people have joined the market assuming they can earn quick money with it. Many of these people would usually not have any prior experience organizing trips or any firsthand information about the hiking trail they would be taking people to, which seriously affects the quality of the hiking. The organizers might misjudge how long the hike would take and when they would need to be back to their starting point to get everyone back home on time. Most hiking trails follow or end at some scenic natural or man made destination such as the Wanchi Lake, the Portuguese Bridge, the Erer Mountain and others. If the organizers have not gathered firsthand information about these destinations, they might fail to get their group to reach said destinations which takes away from the experience. In general, lack of information about hiking trails and training on organizing any type of event as well as the lack of any regulatory mechanism to help hike goers identify reputable hiking groups have had a serious negative impact on the burgeoning hiking industry in the country.
Now onto the opportunities. Since hiking is usually a one-day affair, hikers have to travel to the hiking trail, hike and travel back home from the trail in a span of about 12-14 hours. This means the most ideal hiking trails are within a radius of less than 200KM from where the hike commences. For people living in Finfinnee, most of these trails are within the bounds of Oromia and there are many of them. A lot more hiking trails can be discovered and marked well to make it as easy as possible for people to come and enjoy the outdoors.
For hiking groups it has become the norm to link with a local guide (usually someone who lives in the locality of the trail) before setting out on the hike. This is very similar to what happens in other forms of tourism that employ local tour guides and scouts on their ventures. These local guides lead the group along the trail, give necessary context to the hikers about the destination, answer any questions hikers might have and in general ensure a smooth outing for the whole group.
But the opportunities do not stop here. It has become common for hiking groups to have someone from the locality serve traditionally brewed coffee. This coffee is usually made as close to the destination as possible and brewed fresh, giving the hikers an opportunity to converse and discover something about each other and the local community.
Hikers also enjoy visiting local establishments such as places vending drinks like Itittuu, Daadhii, Areke, Borde, etc. Bigger establishments usually found in a town or city on the way to the destination serving a certain local delicacy, such as Qocho or Chechebsa are also favorite stops on hiking ventures.
Another fixture of most hiking ventures these days is a horse riding session for the hikers. Since most of the destinations are found in areas where horses are abundant, hikers and organizers have found this activity to be a great addition to their hiking experience. In places like Wenchi which has a relatively strong tourism-centric economy, this has been semi-formalized in local associations that provide horses to hikers. Some have even started including horse riding lessons into their services.
Yet another activity that hikers have been enjoying as part of their itineraries is visits to local elders or historians. This is particularly the case on one of the islands of Lake Dambal where a local Zay woman explains to visitors the history of the Zay people (in Afaan Oromoo or the Zay language through an interpreter) and the Zay language. Different versions of this experience abound all over these destinations.
We have seen how hiking as a tourism activity became popular over a very short period of time and how, today, it remains one of the biggest (albeit virtually unrecognized) sectors in domestic tourism. Given the importance domestic tourism holds for the country’s growth and development of tourism destinations, it is time hiking and the hiking groups that spearhead it are given a level of recognition from public institutions and the industry at large is supported for further development. Recognition would not only ease a lot of the bureaucratic hurdles these groups face when trying to develop new destinations, but would also help them reach out to a more premium segment of travelers including expats and foreign tourists. On the other side, recognition would also ensure that these groups are held responsible for their actions for and towards local communities and destinations. This would promote a more sustainable hiking industry.
Acknowledging a lot of work needs to be done to make hiking an intrinsic part of domestic tourism, the following points should be considered as initial steps to help strengthen this budding industry.
1. Create an administrative framework that would enable hiking groups to be registered with the appropriate government body as associations enabling them to correspond and do business as commercial organizations and/or social enterprises.
2. Create standards and guidebooks on how hiking operations should be organized and set safety and wellness requirements to be followed.
3. Register and research popular hiking destinations and routes and help the local community reap the benefits of hiking activities through formal tour guides, community eco-tourism and related associations.
4. Work with lower government structures to facilitate the provision of services such as security to hiking ventures and enable towns and villages on the route to these destinations to take advantage of the visitor traffic.
5. Organize training sessions and workshops for hiking groups, organizers, local guides and local associations to build their capacity in capturing this increasingly important tourism market.