A new leadership representative of Colombia's diverse population for the first time in its history. An agenda centered on decarbonization, integrating host communities in decision making and sharing the tourism pie. And big priorities on social justice. Will Colombia become the model definition of a sustainable tourism industry?
Before the global health crisis, Colombia was all the rage as travelers and digital nomads flocked to Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena, at a record 4.5 million visitors in 2019. Post pandemic, international tourism has steadily bounced back, reaching 77 percent of 2019 levels in the first quarter of 2022.
There’s a larger promise of transformation looming over Colombia, however — and it’s one that could position its tourism industry on the path to becoming a model of inclusivity, equity and sustainability in the region. On August 7, the country’s first left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, and its first Afro-Colombian vice president, Francia Marquez, will take office. The most diverse government yet to lead Colombia includes the first Afro-Colombian ambassador to the United States — engineer and environmental leader Luis Gilberto Murillo — and social leader Guneywya or Leonor Zalabata Torres, from the Indigenous Arhuaco community, as Colombia’s ambassador to the United Nations.
But the incoming government’s top priority is also unprecedented: to transition away from an extractive oil and gas industry, Colombia’s number one export, and to embrace the environment and conservation as a main economic motor. This means a focus on nature, culture and community-based tourism as part of the transition to a circular economy, structured through a lens of social justice, according to the government’s plan.
Expectations are running high on Colombia rising to meet this historic moment to begin turning the corner on the past, and take its tourism industry soaring with it into a low carbon, community-centered and equitable future.
“In all these years working in tourism, I have never seen a moment that has brought so many people that amount of hope,” said Rodrigo Atuesta, CEO of Impulse Travel, a Colombian-based tour company that partners with marginalized communities to offer impactful experiences for international visitors.
Gilberto Salcedo, vice president of tourism at ProColombia, said that the new administration’s plan shows a clear intention to strengthen the tourism industry. “There is an acknowledgement of tourism as an important source of generation of foreign exchange in the country,” said Salcedo.
“For tourism, I honestly don’t think much is going to change because Colombia has invested so much money in promoting Colombia as an exciting environmental tourist destination with the last two administrations,” said Katalina Mayorga, co- founder and CEO of El Camino Travel, a U.S.-based tour operator catering to women in search of immersive and sustainable experiences. “They’ve always seen tourism — whatever side the government is on — as really important to foreign investment and foreign income.”
The aim to prioritize decarbonization and social justice for Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, however, could translate into more safety and political stability, which in turn, could mean a big boost for tourism.
“Petro is aiming for two things that I think are very beneficial for tourism: one, his international policy agenda is aligned with climate and conservation, and two, security,” said Atuesta.
Unlike the former government’s tactics to combat illegal groups in a militarized way with U.S. support, Atuesta said, Petro is different because he was once part of a guerrilla group and has that trust factor.
“I think that’s a big opportunity because the safer the country is, the more tourists will want to come,” said Atuesta, adding that when the Peace Agreement was signed in 2016, an increase of 43 percent in international visits followed within a year’s time.
ProColombia’s Salcedo said that today, tourism is leading the non-mining energy sector, and the objective is to make it an even more important player in the national economy.
Will Colombia’s new government’s lofty goals aiming for decarbonization and social justice manifest amid troubled economic times? Can the ambition to pursue nature and community-led tourism turn into reality in a country where the assassination of environmental and social leaders — defenders of Colombia’s most biodiverse and culturally rich remote areas — continues unabated, at 107 so far in 2022?
For Bogota native and tour guide Andres Salcedo, there’s reason for caution amid hope, because of the democratic process that the new government will have to follow to turn its plans into reality.
While conflicts take place in remote rural areas that most visitors are not exposed to, Impulse Travel’s Atuesta said, the ongoing violence is still very bad for Colombia’s reputation. On July 18, the U.S. State Department raised Colombia’s travel warning to Level 3 Reconsider Travel.
There’s hope that the geopolitical climate is aligned for real change. Colombia remains one of 12 countries worldwide with a sustainable tourism policy in place.
“A key factor that has been our motor in the last few years in our tourism sector: sustainability and meaningful travel,” said ProColombia’s Salcedo. “That’s why during the pandemic, the Colombian Government put in place the Sustainable Tourism Policy, which seeks to generate a transformation of the territories, of tourism businesses, of the communities visited and the practices of those who visit them.”
In 2021, the restructuring of a tourism law also made it possible to legally challenge actions that are not in line with the country’s sustainable tourism development policy.
“The country has been going through a very positive trend of alignment between government, private sector, and international cooperation,” said Impulse Travel’s Atuesta, adding that large investments are coming in from international organizations to boost sustainable tourism development as a way of transitioning out of mining and illegal activities.
“Petro has really a good moment to go forward with his agenda,” said Atuesta. “It really depends and it’s very important who Petro is going to name as the minister of commerce and tourism, and the vice minister of tourism.”
Tackling Peace and Inequity Through Tourism
Tourism that is in harmony with the environment, focuses on the needs of key stakeholders, which includes the communities, and engages Indigenous and Afro-Colombian citizens while protecting human rights, including the protection of the LGBTQ community, are among key priorities, according to the new government’s 54-page plan.
“I think with this new administration everything will improve a lot, because there’s a lot of participation from different sectors of the nation working together; that is very important,” said Victor Simarra, community leader and a native of San Basilio de Palenque, the first free Black settlement in the Americas established in the 1600s and inscribed on UNESCO’s intangible heritage list since 2005.
Colombia isn’t new to the use of tourism as a vehicle for peace and economic equity for communities. For example, reintegrating former guerilla members into society as nature guides was a positive development pre-pandemic, El Camino Travel’s Mayorga said.
“I think that’s been happening for years and Colombia set the example for it,” said Mayorga. “Under Petro, what I’m assuming is continued support and even more focus on that, so I think that can only be like a great thing and that’s going to be really important.”
Among El Camino Travel’s goals is to introduce first-timers to Colombia through experiences that connect them to locals in meaningful ways beyond the tourist areas.
“We start with Cartagena and Medellin, but we focus on telling the rich stories,” said Mayorga. “In Medellin, we take them to where there’s a group called Son Bata — their community is made up of Afro-Colombians from the Choco, in the Pacific, who have been displaced over the last few decades. We try to tell that story; the displacement of Afro Colombians by the FARC is a huge part of the conflict and of Indigenous communities too.”
Victor Simarra believes the Afro and Indigenous representation in government will lead to new opportunities. “This is a big opportunity for us to expand more in tourism due to the fact that there are places that have never been mentioned, and today we can clearly state that we are part of the tourism pie.”
Yet there’s an all too common dynamic at play. Black communities in Colombia are mostly concentrated in regions of extreme beauty, in the Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, but also regions of extreme barriers due to the violence in those areas, Bogota’s Salcedo said. But if those places become accessible, Salcedo agreed that they present huge promise, as they are the best places to go fishing and hiking.
Impulse Travel’s Atuesta said there was a lot to be done before remote areas could open up to tourism.
“I think before that is infrastructure, and air connectivity, and also tourism readiness, because a lot of these areas of Colombia have not received tourism historically, which is a great opportunity for the kind of experience that we can provide to travelers,” said Atuesta.
A new generation of tourism that centers communities is encouraging, Atuesta said, adding that his tour company has reached a 60 percent recovery of pre-pandemic levels so far.
“The recovery has been interesting because the people who are coming to Colombia are more connected to the kind of things that we care about, more aware of the impacts of tourism, and I hope that we get to grow in this segment instead of going to like a mass kind of segment for the recovery,” Atuesta added.
The travel industry’s responsibility in pushing for peace through tourism is a topic Petro has emphasized when it comes to dignifying the communities that have suffered the impact of violence.
The new administration’s plans include ensuring the Centro Nacional de Memoria Historica plays an important role in tourism development, tour guide Salcedo said — to improve the condition in the regions where there’s been violence as well as ensure Colombians and the world remember the past. Petro’s plan includes renovating 46 historical centers across the country.
Not all of the neglected infrastructure areas of the country are remote or plagued with violence, however, if not an hour’s drive from major tourist hubs such as Cartagena.
For instance, the residents of the Afro-Colombian historic town of San Basilio de Palenque, where Victor Simarra leads cultural tours on demand, haven’t had steady access to running water in over a year. This is despite Palenque being one of the most visited and tourism-generating sights in Colombia.
“Colombians don’t like of themselves as racist but when you see the bigger picture this is an extremely racist country,” said Bogota’s Salcedo, adding that Black communities have the worst living conditions.
Having an Afrodescendent vice president and an inclusive government could lead to an improvement of living conditions for marginalized groups, as well as increased accountability in the allocation of tourism funds, sources who spoke to Skift agreed.
A Domestic Boom
While international arrivals trickle back, domestic tourism is soaring at levels never before seen in Colombia. More than 13.2 million Colombians traveled by air between January and May 2022, an increase of 29 percent compared to that same period in 2019, according to the Asociacion Colombiana de Agencias de Viaje y Turismo (Anato).
“Currently, the movement of passengers on domestic flights represents 70 percent of the total air traffic in Colombia,” said Paula Cortes Calle, executive president of Anato, in a local media statement.
“Just like every single country in the world, Colombians started discovering Colombia for the first time, and not going to Miami as the only place or Europe, and realizing, ‘my country has so many rich experiences, especially with nature and adventure,’” said El Camino Travel’s Mayorga.
Impulse Travel’s Atuesta agreed that those focused on domestic travel were seeing record revenues, partly as a result of the government incentivizing local travel.
A Tourism Renaissance?
Big challenges lie ahead as Colombia prepares for a major governmental shift towards what it promises will be a greener, more equitable society and tourism industry.
For El Camino’s Mayorga, the inspiration comes in seeing entrepreneurs who are building a business ecosystem that engages local communities in the countryside as a way towards social change.
“Everyone is working towards making sure that whatever they do in the business, however they set up their business, continues to contribute to the long-term peace of the country,” said Mayorga. “Everyone’s lived through conflict, and they don’t want to ever go back to that.”
Pledges in the government plan to integrate marginalized communities and focus on the environment — as the world’s second most biodiverse country — point to the kind of renaissance that most Colombians have awaited. It’s also the kind of top-down value system that can accelerate the sustainable tourism development work that Colombia’s travel industry has undertaken thus far in the midst of security and global health challenges.
“Tourism brings people together, it is a pillar that goes beyond the different administrations, as it has been a state policy throughout our history,” said ProColombia’s Salcedo. “It also has the power to re-signify Colombia’s difficult past and transform it, to increase the interest of visitors and even locals, to approach history under an educational and non-repetition direction.”
What would it take for Colombia’s new government to succeed in building a lower emission, nature-centered, equitable and inclusive tourism industry?
Impulse Travel’s Atuesta has three suggestions for the incoming administration.
“Number one, bring in the voice of communities in the development, because they know what tourism is and they have a very clear idea on what they want tourism to mean for them,” said Atuesta. “Number two, understand the tourism value chain which is very complex, and bring the private sector to the table to understand the dynamics before coming up with laws; and number three, understand the international market and trends that are emerging. Don’t build tourism plans for the tourism of the past, but for the tourism of the future.”
UPDATED: The story was updated to include comments from Gilberto Salcedo, vice president of tourism at ProColombia.
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Photo credit: Carnival in Barranquilla, Colombia Dawin Rizzo / Unsplash