Does tourism ruin everything? It doesn’t have to.

does tourism ruin everything
Same country, disparate destinations—you couldn’t get two more different beaches if you tried (Top: Baru Island off the coast of Cartagena; Below: Palomino, Colombia)

It’s a strange thing to fall in love with a place—you want to tell everyone, but you’re also aware that popularity may be the harbinger of death for the thing you love. Because, it’s inevitable that the more visitors a place has, the more it will change to accommodate those visitors and chances are, the quirky, charming bits that attracted you in the first place will be among the first to go.

This blog focuses on our memorable experiences in Colombia: how we asked a farmer for permission to walk through their property to hike in the Páramo, crossing crude bridges in the Valle de Cocora that are straight out of Indiana Jones, a day on the beach in Palomino where there was not one other person. Even with the bumps—because each of these experiences also had a hiccup or two—these are the moments I’ve cherished most.

Last week I talked about visiting Baru, an island just off the coast of Cartagena. The old city of Cartagena is magical and Baru’s beach is lovely but, I can’t deny that the vibe there is different from other places in Colombia. Cartagena is a UNESCO world heritage site and a port for cruise ships—these are touristy places.

In getting to live and travel through different parts of Colombia, I’ve noticed that the infrastructure and accessibility that comes from tourism can lure a different kind of traveler—someone looking for a single-serving experience, someone who just wants to check a box on an itinerary. Tourism can change you from a person into a dollar sign, and as you’re shuffled through the machine to make room for the next, the spirit of discovery and possibility of human connection is degraded. Something happens to beauty and charm when it’s appropriated for commerce: it’s tarnished.

Ok, ok, tourism isn’t all bad. A steady stream of travelers can mean a steady demand for local foods and cultural experiences, in a way preserving that heritage. It creates jobs, it’s good for the economy, and locals too benefit from the improvements to infrastructure meant to pave the way for visitors.

Colombia is teetering on tourism’s precipice, a prospect that’s both exciting and from my point of view, a little bit somber. The sketchy security situation of Colombia’s recent history meant that most foreign tourists chose to spend their money elsewhere. The World Travel & Tourism Council issues a report each year on tourism’s impact on individual economies—in 2014 it accounted for 5.9% of Colombia’s GDP and was projected increase to 9% in 2015 (view the 2015 report here). Even so, they found that most of this spending was due to domestic travel, with only a third coming from international/foreign spending.

In the past couple of years, there has been a big campaign to showcase the immense natural diversity Colombia has to offer. I too have done my part to encourage people to come see this amazing place, but it’s a tricky transition—there are unfortunately all too many stories of places being slowly loved to death, or of countries eschewing the future in favor of a profit today.

That said, I think that the fact a lot of tourism in Colombia comes from its residents bodes well for growth. The same friends who worried about Palomino being overdeveloped are also working on a project to protect it. This past November, Tayrona Park was closed to tourists for a month, after the indigenous people living there raised concerns about the drought and the way tourists were behaving. Stories like these tell me that hopefully, Colombia will continue to care for its incredible resources while still benefitting from it’s increasing popularity as a tourist destination. Only time will tell.

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