Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Colombia: For better and for worse

In our last post we saw how the security concerns some may have about visiting the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo may be a bit off the mark. In a way, you could say both places are microcosms of what Colombia as a whole was for the international community just a decade or so ago.

A view of Colombia's plain lands from Yopal, Casanare ...
Colombia has plenty to offer on the tourism front. Is it set to become overran with foreigners?
Only those with a devil-may-care attitude, and slightly crazy to boot, would consider touring the country independently. Only certain spots were seen as relatively safe in an overall dangerous country; now, the opposite is pretty much the case.

Of course that's a very welcome development, the almost complete transformation of a country's external image from 'no-go' to 'go-to'. These days, as it has been for a while, it's the 'loony left' neighbour Venezuela that's the place to avoid (even Wrong Way has his doubts now; what a difference a year makes).

We only need to look at the various publications that have listed Colombia as one of the top countries in the world to visit in 2017 to get a measure of this bright, new global appeal (for example Bloomberg, CNN and Lonely Planet among others).

We expats here have been endorsing Colombia as a tourist destination for years, but it took the recent peace agreement between the government and Farc guerrillas to give the place the 'official' stamp of approval; Colombia is de moda. So it seems in any case.

It will be interesting to see if this new-found love abroad will convert into an increase in tourism numbers in the year and years ahead. Considering what the country already offers and its potential, it would appear things are only going to get better on this front for the foreseeable future. (Do note, the country needs to tighten up significantly on its rubbish management and waste disposal culture when entering the tourism 'big league'. This is to name just one area where work is required.)

Yet, like many places that become universally popular, that this means it's 'better' depends on who you ask.

The tourist influx on Colombia's Caribbean coast has been ongoing for years, with areas that were once tranquil spots now becoming somewhat overran.
One of the famous stone statues at the San Agustín archaeological park, Huila, Colombia.
San Agustín: A must-see for many ...
Indeed, for some of the longer-term expats, there's a danger of the country losing a little appeal if big-spending foreigners start flocking here in numbers. A bit selfish and apocalyptic that one perhaps. (I must say I didn't feel comfortable on my recent one-day visit to San Agustín's archaeological park just because of all the foreign faces about. But what does one expect at a Unesco World Heritage Site?! Plus, because of the crowds I somehow avoided having to pay; silver lining and all that.)

That aside, and while not trying to pour cold water on things, the peace process currently in place is not, obviously enough, a panacea for all the country's ills. For one, you've the issue of former guerrillas continuing with criminality to make ends meet, but now arguably doing it in a way that's a more direct threat to the civil population.

There's also what could be seen as the more worrying and difficult-to-tackle problem of general crime in a vastly unequal country that happens to be an important source of one of the world's most popular illegal drugs. This 'common or garden' safety issue will more than likely keep tourism numbers in check, as it does in other Latino countries.

So while Colombia's doors may now be open to the outside world like never before, there's no guarantee that this will have any positive impact on the average local. It might just make things worse, in a number of ways.
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