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Leon Kaye headshot

Colombia Embraces Sustainable Tourism

By Leon Kaye

It’s rich in biodiversity, containing over 1,500 species of orchids that can’t be found anywhere else on the planet – and while we’re discussing nature, this country, almost twice as large as France, also hosts over 1,900 species of birds. This South American country’s biodiversity in part can be explained by its varied landscapes, from its vast Amazonian rainforests to small deserts and remote Caribbean islands.

That biodiversity is one reason why travelers are increasingly finding their way to Colombia, whether they seek to trek up one of the few glaciers in a tropical zone, visit the lush Pacific coast or explore the country’s mountainous Zona Cafetera.

And what these 3 million annual visitors (more than triple the amount of travelers from a decade ago) are discovering is a country home to 50 million people that by and large is very welcoming to visitors. That is, Colombians are especially gracious to guests if they can see the country for what it is and what it could become in the coming years – and not focus on the country’s past struggles. After all, Pablo Escobar has been dead for a quarter of a century, and while many Colombians have doubts about the country’s peace process, this is a country moving forward. Jokes about Escobar or the country’s illegal drug trade will earn an eye-roll at the very least or at most, a burst of exasperation. “Let’s not forget that Bolivia and Peru are doing very well with the drug trade, yet don’t have the reputation,” grumbled one guesthouse employee during my recent trip to Colombia.

“Now, let’s talk about this trek you’re going to do tomorrow,” said the same employee a few seconds later, as she was eager to pivot and explain what Colombia offers its guests who decide to visit the country. Colombia's security, not to mention its relative economic stability when compared to several of its neighbors, are among the reason why the nation's hospitality sector is enjoying robust growth. Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, had only five hostels a little over a decade ago. Now it is home to a few hundred. And international chains, such as Hilton, are also bullish on Colombia’s growth potential.

While Colombia’s government certainly welcomes this economic boost, the country’s commerce, industry and tourism says it is determined to see that this increase in tourism is sustainable. Community-based tourism is one important part of this plan; earlier this year, the government added new towns to a list of what it describes as official “sustainable tourism destinations.” These communities have gained certifications verifying that their tourism infrastructures are not only environmentally and socially responsible, but are also generating wealth and opportunities for all citizens who want to participate in the local tourism sector.

And therein lies another reason why travel across Colombia can be a sustainable, responsible and local experience – while it is clear more gringos are traveling across the Atlantic and Caribbean to experience Colombia, visiting towns and cities like Salento, Filandia, Guatapé and Cartagena will likely be surrounded by hordes of tourists – the majority of which are Colombian. After all, the country’s natural, cultural and architectural riches have hardly been a secret to its own citizens.

More travel agencies have realized the potential that Colombia promises visitors and offer trips that promise a singular travel experience while ensuring that local culture is respected and preserved.

Medellín-based and British-run Amakuna, for example, plans itineraries that promise authentic experiences with local guides and stays at locally-run accommodations. Out in Colombia Travel, led by an American expat, organizes customized tours tailored for the LGBTQ community.

Leading international tour operators have been investing in Colombia’s potential. Canada-based G Adventures partners with a social enterprise to offer a Lost City Trek tour that takes visitors to Tayrona National Park in the northeastern section of the country. For the past three years, G Adventures and its nonprofit partner, the Planeterra Foundation, have worked with the indigenous Wiwa people to help visitors explore the Ciudad Perdida and experience what was once a completely isolated way of life. Projects included funding the construction of a community dining and handicraft sales center in the remote village of Gotsezhi, which employs some of Wiwa women who sell food and artisan crafts to travelers. “The goal of the project is sustainable employment and responsible development, which honor the Wiwa people’s ancient, sacred culture while also bringing income to their remote community and creating jobs for their young people,” said a G Adventures spokesperson in an email to TriplePundit.

In the next few weeks, we’ll take a closer look at how Colombia is becoming a focal point for travelers who are focused on more responsible travel – including the role coffee has in promoting ecotourism, a visit to one of the leading global “smart cities” and how one of the country’s leading brands is undergoing a sustainable makeover.

Image credits: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye