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Calls for humanitarian assistance for 83,000 who call UNSECO site home

Unabated fighting between federal forces and armed groups in the Amhara region has exacerbated a critical economic crisis in the historic town of Lalibela as its residents struggle to cope with flatlining tourist numbers in the wake of a two-year war and a global pandemic.

The home of Ethiopia’s iconic rock-hewn churches also hosts more than 80,000 residents, nearly all of whom are reliant on tourism for income. But Lalibela, one of the larger urban centers in the region, has been caught up in conflict several times over the last few years.

The Reporter paid a visit to the town this week, and heard firsthand about the challenges facing Lalibela from its residents and clergy, and administrators.

Father Hiryakos Tsegaye, head of the administration of the rock-hewn churches, recounted stories surrounding fighting between federal forces and forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which lasted two years, before the ongoing conflict began to take its toll on the town. The fighting, he says, came following a crippling fall in tourism as a result of COVID-19.

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“In this city, there are no other sources of income, no other industries; tourism is the lifeblood of the community, and it has taught us that once this challenging situation is over, we must engage with stakeholders to establish alternative ways of conducting business,” he said.

Father Hiryakos called for higher standards in the tourism industry and criticized international organizations and foreign embassies for what he calls “exaggerated warnings” about safety in Lalibela.

A steady trickle of backpacking tourists is keeping the industry alive in Lalibela, according to him.

Father Hiryakos disclosed that more than 1,000 church employees, including priests and deacons, as well as non-clergy staff, work at the ancient rock-hewn church, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

These employees depend on fees collected from tourists for their income, leaving them barehanded as tourist numbers plummet.

The town used to welcome over 50,000 foreign tourists a year in times of peace, according to Muchaw Derebe, a veteran tour guide in the area. He told The Reporter the city receives fewer than 100 foreign visitors a year now.

Addise Demissie, deputy head of the Lalibela Tourism Bureau, disclosed that no less than 45 hotels have closed up shop as a result of the conflicts and pandemic. The businesses employed some 1,500 people, according to Addise.

“It is very critical, the challenge is immense,” he told The Reporter.

Addise revealed only 700 foreign tourists visited Lalibela during the first year of the pandemic, but the numbers have since dropped to a handful. Tourists are charged 50 USD for entrance to the rock-hewn churches.

The town administration is seeking assistance from higher levels of government to implement recovery financing schemes and tax exemptions and privileges to revitalize its 83,00 residents and ailing hospitality industry.

Many of Lalibela’s hotels have been looted and are still closed, according to Addise. He disclosed the administration is seeking humanitarian assistance for its residents, who are at great risk of food shortages and lack ways to generate income without tourists.

As the fighting rages on in northern Ethiopia, several of Lalibela’s hotels have been abandoned, many of them are damaged and have yet to be repaired, others are closed, while some have pivoted into other businesses in a bid to stay afloat. Cafes and souvenir shops lie empty, and nearby farmers who used to sell their produce to tourists and hotels no longer have a source of income.

The Reporter spoke to the proprietor of a hotel who said he plans to close his establishment and relocate to Addis Ababa if there are no discernable improvements in the coming months.

Tourist guides, hotel staff, and those working in transportation face glaring uncertainties unless peace is restored or the government intervenes to help Lalibela’s residents, said Muchaw.

He says 20 of the approximately 200 licensed tour guides in Lalibela have gone abroad in recent years in search of employment, while many others have had to scrape by working as daily laborers.

“We have been requesting a short-term loan from the government to pursue alternative income-generating activities, but years have passed, and we are still here with empty pockets,” said the tour guide. “Before the pandemic, at least 80 tourists would visit Lalibela daily. Now, there are barely a few tourists per month.”

Lalibela’s hopes lie in the return of peace and a revival of tourism. Until then, the crisis will continue to burden its residents, whose faces reflect years of toil spent under the yoke of violence. Many are afraid to speak out, and feel the state of emergency imposed on the region forces them to struggle with the hardships silently.

“I am tired; I have three children. I can’t even provide them with two square meals a day. I used to run a small gift shop where I sold handmade trinkets to tourists. Forget about selling now. I don’t have the materials I need because the road from Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar isn’t safe and I can’t go there to get them,” said a Lalibela resident who spoke anonymously to The Reporter.

A priest named Gashaw Fenta expressed growing concerns that his meager salary from the church may dry up if the current conditions persist. It would be a severe blow to him and six family members.

“It’s regrettable to see our historic town yearning for tourists,” said Gashaw. “It is frustrating that there aren’t as many foreigners as there used to be in the streets of Lalibela, the Sunday market, coffee shops, and gift shops.”

Lalibela town officials did not respond to further inquiries from The Reporter.

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