By Jeff Baron

Ethiopia is taking a key step toward conserving one of its natural treasures: making it more accessible to tourists.

The Ethiopian Sustainable Tourism Alliance has facilitated a concession agreement to develop the first eco-lodge in Bale Mountains National Park. Jember Ltd., a private investment company based in the United Kingdom, is expected to begin construction on the 15-room, $1.2 million lodge in July and open it in mid-2013.

The agreement was facilitated by Counterpart International’s Ethiopian Sustainable Tourism Alliance (ESTA). Bedilu Shegen, the head of the alliance, says “This agreement is an incredible success as a public-private partnership.”

Investment and jobs

The lodge will be more than a place for tired tourists. It will bring foreign investment, contribute to the conservation of wildlife and create job opportunities for residents, said Kifle Argaw, Director General of the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, at a June 4 ceremony to sign the agreement.

Guy Levene, Jember’s General Manager, said Ethiopia has encouraging situations for foreign investors. He said he plans to make further investments in the country. The agreement with the conservation authority allows Jember to construct additional lodges at the park. “I plan to build more lodges in the future and have an embryonic plan for the development of the Dinsho Lodge and for a smaller facility on the Sanetti Plateau,” two other sections of the park, Levene says.

Bale Mountains National Park covers about 850 square miles of southeastern Ethiopia’s Oromia Region. In addition to the mountains for which it is named – some of Ethiopia’s highest – it comprises the Harenna Forest and the Gaysay grasslands. It is known for spectacular scenery and wildlife diversity.

Tourists have spotted the rare Abyssinian catbird near the park headquarters in Dinsho and the wattled ibis on the Sanetti Plateau. “We intend to market the lodge as a true safari destination or as part of a wider tour to South Central Ethiopia incorporating Sof Omar Caves, Harer, Awash and the Rift Valley Lakes,” Levene says.

UNESCO recognition

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is considering Bale Mountains National Park for inclusion among its World Heritage Sites. For more information on the park and the UNESCO World Heritage Site program, visit their website.

Counterpart’s ESTA program began in 2008 and promotes biodiversity conservation, eco-tourism, watershed management and HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.