Few industries have a bleaker outlook right now than tourism. But in Colombia, policymakers and business leaders are already thinking about how the industry can play a central role in the country’s economic recovery, regardless of the time. As the second most biodiverse country in the world, harnessing Colombia’s tourism potential will require tackling lingering sustainability issues as well as challenges such as chronic underinvestment in infrastructure.
“The pandemic gives us a better understanding of what we were doing wrong,” said Felipe Buitrago Restrepo, Colombian deputy minister of the orange economy. QA. “The industry will experience an overhaul and a pivot towards sustainability. ”
Before the pandemic, tourism was an increasingly important sector in the Colombian economy. Foreign visitors to Colombia increased 300% between 2006 and 2019. The country’s peace deal with the FARC guerrilla group has opened up once inaccessible areas of the country, and foreign tourists have increased by an average of 8.5 % within two years of signing the agreement. 2016. In 2019, the industry employed 1.4 million Colombians and contributed $ 19 billion to the economy, or 3.8% of GDP.
Then came the pandemic. The closure of shops and borders has pushed hotel occupancy rates below 3% nationally. Some 235,000 jobs have been affected, according to the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism. Losing this potential contribution from the growing industry would be a huge setback for Colombia, wrote analyst Sergio GuzmÃ¡n in a recent editorial.
The government has already taken steps to support the struggling industry during the pandemic. This includes a commitment to subsidize 1,500 tourist guides who are now unemployed for the next three months. In addition, all tourist and hotel services are exempt from VAT until December 31. However, saving the Colombian tourism industry as we know it will likely require more than short-term savings.
“The reactivation of the tourism industry cannot have a short-term objective,” said Roberto Esmeral, Colombian deputy minister of the environment and sustainable development. QA. âWe can only achieve a sustainable industry if we develop a long-term strategy. ”
A long-term strategy is to invest seriously in infrastructure. In the 2019 World Economic Forum Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index, Colombia ranks 55th out of 140 countries surveyed. However, Colombia fell to 82nd place for tourism service infrastructure and 109th place for land and port infrastructure.
âEven before the pandemic, investors were reluctant to build hotels in small towns, largely because of poor infrastructure that impedes communication and travel,â said Dr Gustavo Adolfo Toro VelÃ¡squez, chairman of the Colombian Association of Tourism and Hotels. QA.
The New York Times recently considered the Lost City of Colombia, an archaeological site on the Caribbean coast, one of South America’s âmost rewarding adventure destinationsâ. But the nearest airport, in Santa Marta, is unable to accommodate long-haul flights. Instead, tourists interested in the area should fly to BogotÃ¡ or Cartagena, then travel to Santa Marta via an additional flight or bus. Colombia’s National Infrastructure Agency is expected to approve the expansion of the Santa Marta airport runway, but this has yet to happen. The pandemic could further prolong the process.
To ensure the survival of the tourism industry, the public and private sectors will face threats from COVID-19 to Colombia’s progress in post-conflict conservation and development that has allowed ecotourism to thrive. . The pandemic threatens an increase in agricultural expansion and illegal mining, according to Conservation International.
“I was recently asked if I would consider returning to work for the illicit crop plantations, as many of us tour guides did before the tourism boom,” said John Jairo De La Hoz, tour guide sightseeing tour for the Lost City Trek, a one-day multi-expedition through the jungles of the Sierra Nevada off the Caribbean coast of Colombia. âWe are going through a very difficult time fighting for the future of our industry. ”
Despite this difficult phase for the industry, the pandemic can also change tourism in a way that benefits the ecotourism industry in Colombia. For starters, the pandemic could change consumer preferences, according to Gilberto Salcedo, vice president of tourism at ProColombia. âPeople will be looking for environments with fewer people. ”
Birdwatching is an example of an industry that could thrive in a post-pandemic world. There are over 1,920 species of birds in Colombia, and a 2017 study by the National Audubon Society predicted that birding could attract 150,000 visitors from the United States alone over 10 years, which could create 7,500 jobs and $ 47 million in revenue.
“Birdwatching and other activities around nature may become a niche that will be in high demand among travelers, who are looking for a therapeutic approach to offset the effects of the pandemic on physical and mental health,” said Flavia Santoro, president of ProColombia.
Colombia is already taking steps to make its ecotourism industry more competitive globally in preparation for reopening. The government is working to provide WiFi access in remote areas where the majority of ecotourism takes place. Esmeral explained that companies can work on their marketing strategies to emphasize the attractiveness of the country’s natural beauty to meet changing tourist demand.
Recently, the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism announced the creation of a certification for service providers aimed at generating the confidence of travelers and consumers. To obtain the certificate, companies must adhere to strict sanitary and hygiene protocols.
Despite the challenges COVID-19 creates for the tourism industry, the current crisis is also creating an opportunity to strengthen and transform the industry in the long term. Esmeral said QA, “Our goal is to increase the percentage that ecotourism contributes to the GDP so that we can take advantage of our geographic positioning while taking care of the environment.”
Rauls is an intern for QA
Key words: Colombia, coronavirus, Tourism
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its editors.