The Dilemma of Authenticity in Tourism Destinations: Colombia, as a Case in Point

Church in Salento

Church in Salento

If you read my previous blog post (about Jardin, Colombia) and you know what I do, you may be thinking that I’m being hypocritical.  I’ll explain.  You may remember that I started my article by saying that what I loved about my recent trip to Colombia was its authenticity.  I remarked that most of the towns and villages that we (I and several ecotourists that I assembled) visited hadn’t been tidied up or embellished for tourists, and as a result, I felt as though I experienced a more traditional Colombian lifestyle than what one sees in more highly visited places.  It was a contrast to tourism sites around the world that have significant numbers of visitors – where locals often find themselves serving and trying to please outsiders, rather than just being themselves.  And, it was a contrast to places where the natural and cultural attractions have been cleaned up, roped in and/or hardened to withstand tourist pressure.

Frailejone = Espeletia sp.

Frailejone = Espeletia sp.

So far so good, right?  But, remember – or, if you don’t know this already – that I am an ecotourim operator.  That is, I take travelers to visit unique and often out-of-the-way natural and cultural sites.  And when we travel, we require a modicum of tourism infrastructure.  We create a demand for comfortable lodging, appealing food, sufficient transport, visitable attractions, informed guides, etc.   On the one hand, this is a good thing because the act of planning and establishing tourism infrastructure stimulates the local economy and provides jobs.  But, at the same time, it can produce social and cultural changes that dilute or, in some cases, obliterate the original attractions and qualities that brought tourists there in the first place.  It’s those changes that I tend to shy away from.

I admit that I don’t have an answer to this dilemma.  In fact, the issue of how much to develop and thus, change a place in order to make it easier for more people to appreciate (and often help conserve) it, is a sticking point, one that all of us who work in sustainable tourism understand and need to address.  As we encourage travelers to visit iconic sites and cultures around the world and to learn about their unique environment, heritage, social and cultural features, we impact what we have come to see and the people who live nearby.  And our impacts are not always for the better.

Colombian tamale

Colombian tamale

The salient question we must ask is whether the tourism we engage in results in more benefit than harm.  Where do the scales balance out?  On one side are the potential benefits:  income for local people, conservation of unique resources and attractions, raising the awareness of tourists, as well as local peoples, about unique and valuable resources, etc.  On the other are the social, environmental, cultural and economic ills that may be caused by overdevelopment, imposition of standards and norms of other cultures, and economic inequities exposed and/or caused by the presence of tourists.  We can hope and work for the former, but the final reckoning won’t be clear until many years from now.

In the case of Colombia, the jury is still out.  At this point, the country sees relatively few foreign tourists, apart from some a small number of visitors from adjacent countries.  You can probably guess why – because of its former reputation as being dangerous due to the 40 (+/-) year conflict between guerillas, paramilitary and government officials.  However, that’s history.   Violence is way, way down and Colombia is a safe and wonderful place to explore.  In saying this, I realize that I am guilty of opening the door just a bit wider for foreign tourists to visit and gradually impact local communities in ways that I don’t always like.  At the same time, I have another objective in my role as an ecotourism operator:  to help tourists and tourism providers to share and conserve sites with cultural and natural heritage.  And, Colombia is a good place for this.

Painting of Tayrona indigenous people

Painting of Tayrona indigenous people

The country and its visitors can benefit tremendously by taking a careful and measured approach to increasing international tourism.  It really shouldn’t be that difficult as the infrastructure is already there, serving the many Colombians who travel extensively within their own country.  And, the fact that significant numbers of Colombians choose to travel in their own country is a good thing.  It indicates that Colombians are attracted to and proud of their country, and want to get to know it better and protect its assets.  And, it means that tourism entrepreneurs haven’t yet set up artificial dog and pony shows just to please foreigners.

May this authenticity survive and prosper – for the benefit of visitors, residents and Colombia’s diverse natural, cultural and socio-economic resources.

About abitravel

I'm a lucky person since I've combined my two major passions, conservation and travel, into a profession of sorts. When I'm not organizing or leading an ecotour to Latin America or beyond, I engage in freelance writing and enjoy outdoor activities with my wife. That's the nutshell version!
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4 Responses to The Dilemma of Authenticity in Tourism Destinations: Colombia, as a Case in Point

  1. A M says:

    Columbian tamale?! Good grief. Three-courses in one leaf. That’s a very distant cousin from the Mexican tamales we buy from coolers here in Chicago. Seriously, thanks for this Columbia series. Like many USAmericans, I still think of Columbia in terms of the Cali and Medellín cartels. Thanks for introducing me to the coffee, sunlit waterfalls, cable travel. And the tamales.

    • abitravel says:

      That tamale could have fed three teenage boys for a week… If you want to share one with me sometime, AM, I’d love to take you to Colombia. I’m ready to plan a third trip there – I loved it so much!

  2. Great article. your points are very relevant. Sustainable tourism that comes hand in hand with progress and opportunities for local communities is, in our view, a possible solution to this dilemma. Colombia is fortunate in a way, for being a beautiful eco-travel destination that has been excluded from high-impact tourism due to its past security issues. As a result there is now an opportunity to start from a green field and create the right foundations for a sustainable tourism industry where communities and travellers enjoy the wonders of the country for many years to come. At least, we hope so…

    • abitravel says:

      I agree and am glad to hear that you – and hopefully, many other tourism entrepreneurs – are interested in building international tourism in a manner that’s measured and that benefits communities and environmental/social/cultural/economic systems. Thanks for your comments. Let’s keep this dialogue going.

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