Jun 9, 2018

The natural side of Colombia’s growing tourism industry

Why, and how, GOOD travellers should visit Colombia

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The world’s changing perceptions towards Colombia have given way to new opportunities for locals to get involved in tourism and set their own tone for how people experience their beautiful and diverse country. In 2018, The New York Times designated Colombia as #2 on their annual Top Places to Visit list, with the headline: “With the war finally over, the entire country is opening up.” Tourism grew 250% over the past decade, predominantly drawing visitors to the cities of Bogotá, Medellín, and Cartagena. In 2003, the Colombian government introduced tax incentives for developers to build and/or renovate hotels and hostels before the end of 2017, and as a result, infrastructure to support tourism has developed quickly. Some are coming for more than just tourism; “digital nomads” who work on their computers and North American retirees are coming in droves to settle in long-term for the cheap cost of living and expat friendly amenities.

At GOOD Travel, we always pay attention when a country’s tourism industry is developing rapidly. When a destination suddenly becomes trendy, what might be missing in terms of cultural preservation, and who might be missing out on reaping the benefits of a more dynamic tourism economy? What should travelers know about visiting Colombia so as to make choices that empower local business owners and communities?

To explore some of these issues, we spoke with Diana Cristina Ramirez Gomez, a Colombian tourism entrepreneur who owns a company called Aventura San Francisco with her brother Erwin. Their company offers treks in a less-explored area of the country that was especially impacted by the conflict. Diana grew up in Medellín, and after working as an accountant for many years, found her true calling in connecting travelers with rural communities and outdoor experiences.

What is unique about Colombia and why is it an amazing place to visit?

Colombia is the second most bio-diverse country in the world, and you have an incredible array of options for any type of experience you may want. You can find so many different environments and landscapes. In the north we have the desert, the plain lands, with our own kind of “cowboy” culture. In the center, we have mountains, some lush and green and some as high as 6,000 meters with snowcapped peaks. We have the Caribbean Sea, and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Colombia is not a massive territory compared to other countries in South America. It’s a small country where each region represents something completely different. This is also true of the people, cuisine, and music, so there is something for everyone and so much to see.

Also, the people are very friendly in Colombia. We are culturally welcoming and proud. Although, many Colombians still don’t know about the incredible natural resources that we have here.

Why did you decide to start your own company, and why is it aligned with GOOD Travel?

In college, even though I was studying accounting, I couldn’t get my mind off nature. I followed that urge and joined a group to do outdoor activities. It was with this group of friends that I first gained experience being an informal guide. This is where I grew my great passion for biking, camping, and discovering new trekking routes.

Five years ago, my brother and I began to discover a rural town in the department of Antioquia called San Francisco. We knew about it because our grandparents lived there for a while. This is a place that was affected greatly by the conflict and many people in this region were displaced as a result. It was especially affected by land mines and had been destroyed over and over again by the war. About ten years ago it started to return to more normal conditions: NGOs starting to bring resources into the town, some displaced people returning, beginning the process of removing the mines. Little by little, the town came back to life. My brother and I thought this process of revitalization was beautiful to see.

This was our motivation to start Aventura San Francisco. We wanted to dedicate ourselves to nature, show people all the beautiful things in this region, and also help the community to generate money for the local economy. We have to conserve these places in rural Colombia that are still recovering from the conflict – we can’t stigmatize or isolate them. It’s difficult when you even talk to other Colombians who say, “you can’t go to this region.” Things have improved so much, but many people are still ignorant and generate fear instead of hope.

Why have you dedicated yourself to rural tourism rather than urban tourism?

Well, of course it depends on what a person is interested in, but in my opinion the countryside of Colombia is absolutely exceptional. The terrain and biodiversity engage all of your senses, and your sprit feels happy. The “campesinos” that you meet are generous – you get to come into contact with people who are loving and want to share everything they have with you. People don’t look at you in economic terms like they do in tourist areas of a city.

Also, many places in Colombia are relatively undiscovered. When you go on a hike you may be alone, and when you visit some of these smaller pueblos you may be the only foreigner in the town. This provides for more authentic experiences where you can be closer to both the people and the nature. And for local people, it helps them gain some of the benefits of increased tourism in our country.

What are some of the challenges to sustainable tourism in Colombia right now?

This type of fast, popular tourism builds economies, but it destroys tradition. When a place starts to develop really quickly, it leads to displacement of people and species in the environment. For example, Salento, in the department of Quindío, is a town that is so beautiful, so colorful, that of course it is incredibly popular with tourists. But you cannot find local people there anymore. When tourists started to come, all the residencies were converted into infrastructure for a tourist town, and the cost of living spiked dramatically. We need to prevent this kind of thing from happening—tourism needs to support the local people.

Of course, increased tourism also brings more prostitution, sex trafficking, and drugs. This is really increasing, especially in Medellín, and the types of travellers here for those things are bad for our growing industry.

Finally, the preparation of our industry and our guides is a challenge. We have to raise consciousness about what sustainable tourism is. We need to support campesinos in learning other languages so that they can be more involved with tourism. Also, we need to make sure we are training our guides to value what we have here in Colombia. We have so much to offer: these beautiful rivers, millions of plant and bird species, the ability to grow anything. We have to remember how special this is and spread that appreciation to the tourists that we guide.

What are some things that visitors can do to be a GOOD Traveler in Colombia?

To learn more about Aventura San Francisco, visit http://aventurasanfrancisco.co. The company’s cornerstone offering is a multi-day trek to San Francisco, but they also offer other treks and canyoning experiences. Custom-made outdoor experiences are available upon request.

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GOOD Travel blog author

Jessica Smith Atassi

Jessica Smith Atassi is based in Chicago, where she has worked for ten years in international nonprofits and higher education. Her love for Latin America blossomed while living and working in Cusco, Peru in 2008, and since then she has returned to Peru twice to attend and co-lead GOOD Travel trips. Most recently, she spent five months based in Medellín, enjoying the coffee culture and diverse landscapes and cities of Colombia.

The world’s changing perceptions towards Colombia have given way to new opportunities for locals to get involved in tourism and set their own tone for how people experience their beautiful and diverse country. In 2018, The New York Times designated Colombia as #2 on their annual Top Places to Visit list, with the headline: “With the war finally over, the entire country is opening up.” Tourism grew 250% over the past decade, predominantly drawing visitors to the cities of Bogotá, Medellín, and Cartagena. In 2003, the Colombian government introduced tax incentives for developers to build and/or renovate hotels and hostels before the end of 2017, and as a result, infrastructure to support tourism has developed quickly. Some are coming for more than just tourism; “digital nomads” who work on their computers and North American retirees are coming in droves to settle in long-term for the cheap cost of living and expat friendly amenities.

At GOOD Travel, we always pay attention when a country’s tourism industry is developing rapidly. When a destination suddenly becomes trendy, what might be missing in terms of cultural preservation, and who might be missing out on reaping the benefits of a more dynamic tourism economy? What should travelers know about visiting Colombia so as to make choices that empower local business owners and communities?

To explore some of these issues, we spoke with Diana Cristina Ramirez Gomez, a Colombian tourism entrepreneur who owns a company called Aventura San Francisco with her brother Erwin. Their company offers treks in a less-explored area of the country that was especially impacted by the conflict. Diana grew up in Medellín, and after working as an accountant for many years, found her true calling in connecting travelers with rural communities and outdoor experiences.

What is unique about Colombia and why is it an amazing place to visit?

Colombia is the second most bio-diverse country in the world, and you have an incredible array of options for any type of experience you may want. You can find so many different environments and landscapes. In the north we have the desert, the plain lands, with our own kind of “cowboy” culture. In the center, we have mountains, some lush and green and some as high as 6,000 meters with snowcapped peaks. We have the Caribbean Sea, and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Colombia is not a massive territory compared to other countries in South America. It’s a small country where each region represents something completely different. This is also true of the people, cuisine, and music, so there is something for everyone and so much to see.

Also, the people are very friendly in Colombia. We are culturally welcoming and proud. Although, many Colombians still don’t know about the incredible natural resources that we have here.

Why did you decide to start your own company, and why is it aligned with GOOD Travel?

In college, even though I was studying accounting, I couldn’t get my mind off nature. I followed that urge and joined a group to do outdoor activities. It was with this group of friends that I first gained experience being an informal guide. This is where I grew my great passion for biking, camping, and discovering new trekking routes.

Five years ago, my brother and I began to discover a rural town in the department of Antioquia called San Francisco. We knew about it because our grandparents lived there for a while. This is a place that was affected greatly by the conflict and many people in this region were displaced as a result. It was especially affected by land mines and had been destroyed over and over again by the war. About ten years ago it started to return to more normal conditions: NGOs starting to bring resources into the town, some displaced people returning, beginning the process of removing the mines. Little by little, the town came back to life. My brother and I thought this process of revitalization was beautiful to see.

This was our motivation to start Aventura San Francisco. We wanted to dedicate ourselves to nature, show people all the beautiful things in this region, and also help the community to generate money for the local economy. We have to conserve these places in rural Colombia that are still recovering from the conflict – we can’t stigmatize or isolate them. It’s difficult when you even talk to other Colombians who say, “you can’t go to this region.” Things have improved so much, but many people are still ignorant and generate fear instead of hope.

Why have you dedicated yourself to rural tourism rather than urban tourism?

Well, of course it depends on what a person is interested in, but in my opinion the countryside of Colombia is absolutely exceptional. The terrain and biodiversity engage all of your senses, and your sprit feels happy. The “campesinos” that you meet are generous – you get to come into contact with people who are loving and want to share everything they have with you. People don’t look at you in economic terms like they do in tourist areas of a city.

Also, many places in Colombia are relatively undiscovered. When you go on a hike you may be alone, and when you visit some of these smaller pueblos you may be the only foreigner in the town. This provides for more authentic experiences where you can be closer to both the people and the nature. And for local people, it helps them gain some of the benefits of increased tourism in our country.

What are some of the challenges to sustainable tourism in Colombia right now?

This type of fast, popular tourism builds economies, but it destroys tradition. When a place starts to develop really quickly, it leads to displacement of people and species in the environment. For example, Salento, in the department of Quindío, is a town that is so beautiful, so colorful, that of course it is incredibly popular with tourists. But you cannot find local people there anymore. When tourists started to come, all the residencies were converted into infrastructure for a tourist town, and the cost of living spiked dramatically. We need to prevent this kind of thing from happening—tourism needs to support the local people.

Of course, increased tourism also brings more prostitution, sex trafficking, and drugs. This is really increasing, especially in Medellín, and the types of travellers here for those things are bad for our growing industry.

Finally, the preparation of our industry and our guides is a challenge. We have to raise consciousness about what sustainable tourism is. We need to support campesinos in learning other languages so that they can be more involved with tourism. Also, we need to make sure we are training our guides to value what we have here in Colombia. We have so much to offer: these beautiful rivers, millions of plant and bird species, the ability to grow anything. We have to remember how special this is and spread that appreciation to the tourists that we guide.

What are some things that visitors can do to be a GOOD Traveler in Colombia?

  • Always hire a local guide when you are going outside of the cities to hike, trek, and do other outdoor activities. This is a great way to get to know the culture, practice your Spanish, and give locals an opportunity to learn about you. It is also the safest thing to do. Many of the trails in the countryside are not marked, and you can easily get lost. The trails may not be used often, and heavy vegetation can grow and you can lose the trail. You might not have cell service if you get lost. Weather conditions can also change rapidly. All that to say, hiring a local guide who is very knowledgeable about the local terrain and culture is very important.
  • Don’t leave even a trace of your garbage behind. Be diligent about leaving the places you visit as clean as it was or even better than it was when you arrived.
  • Value every resource. Appreciate anything that you are receiving, because it’s not easy for these rural communities to "hacer mercado." These are remote communities, and they only go once or twice a month to buy groceries. Then they have to spend 1-2 hours on a mule to buy their things and return to their houses. Value every sip of coffee, every meal, every piece of toilet paper that a small communities shares with you.
  • Minimize your use of plastic. Recycling is not easy in Colombia and these bottles end up in its rivers and countryside. The water is safe to drink in the major cities, so be sure to utilize tap water when you are able to, instead of accumulating plastic water bottles.
  • Be flexible and respectful of the culture of where you go. Try not to make too many requests that require your hosts to accommodate you. For example, during our San Francisco trek, our travelers stay overnight in the houses of farmers. We don’t want these farmers to make American meals or build beds that are like their beds at home. We want the travelers to eat what the farmers eat and sleep on a mattress on the floor like the farmers do. You might not have a luxurious mattress or hot water, but instead you will be very close to the people you are visiting and the culture you are experiencing.
  • If you are asking about the history, remember to have respect and tact. Parts of Colombia’s past are very painful, depending on whom you ask. We don’t want to focus on the past and we don’t want to be distinguished by stereotypes created by the media and Netflix. Yes, the conflict happened here. It’s a reality that impacted many people, and many people died. But look at where we are and what we have now. Focus your conversations with locals on these more positive aspects of Colombia’s present.
  • Give yourself time to discover as much as possible. As you’re planning your trip, reflect on why you want to come here. Right now people just automatically go to Bogotá and Medellín and Cartagena. By not doing more research and taking more time, they miss a million opportunities to connect with Colombia.

To learn more about Aventura San Francisco, visit http://aventurasanfrancisco.co. The company’s cornerstone offering is a multi-day trek to San Francisco, but they also offer other treks and canyoning experiences. Custom-made outdoor experiences are available upon request.

MORE BLOGS

Jessica Smith Atassi

Jessica Smith Atassi is based in Chicago, where she has worked for ten years in international nonprofits and higher education. Her love for Latin America blossomed while living and working in Cusco, Peru in 2008, and since then she has returned to Peru twice to attend and co-lead GOOD Travel trips. Most recently, she spent five months based in Medellín, enjoying the coffee culture and diverse landscapes and cities of Colombia.

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