Hope for Growth? The Potential and Pitfalls of Ecotourism in Colombia

Hope for Growth? The Potential and Pitfalls of Ecotourism in Colombia

Colombia is blessed with magnificent landscapes, various regional climates and one of the highest levels of biodiversity on Earth. Consequently, there is a lot of scope for Colombia to use its natural beauty to attract tourists and tourism-related investment from around the world. Ecotourism also has the potential to assist, and be assisted by, Colombia’s ongoing peace process.

Colombian Tourism and Biodiversity – An Overview

Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries on Earth, second only to Brazil. According to government statistics Colombia is home to over 51,000 species, including over 1,900 bird species, many of which are unique to the country. With coasts on the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, as well as distinct regions like the mountainous Andean region or the tropical Amazonía region, Colombia holds a lot of promise for environmental tourism of many different kinds. The páramos, wetlands characteristic of the Andean region, are significant not only for their biodiversity but for their importance to Colombian livelihoods; this ecosystem provides an estimated 70% of Colombia’s potable water.

Colombia also hosts a dynamic tourism industry which, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, had been experiencing consistent growth. Between 2012 and 2019 the number of tourists visiting Colombia more than doubled; in 2019, a record 2.8 million tourists visited Colombia. Colombia’s tourism market size has also historically been on the rise, increasing by 35% between 2014 and 2018 from a starting point of $4.8 billion USD. The tourism industry is important for Colombia as a generator of foreign exchange, accounting for 52% of the country’s foreign exchange inflows.

Regarding ecotourism, Colombia has also seen growing tourist engagement with its natural parks. For example, visits to the Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park exceeded 1.3 million in 2019, up 54% on 2016. Presuming that tourism figures return to pre-pandemic levels over the short-to-medium term, Colombia is likely to benefit greatly from growth in the ecotourism sphere.

The Opportunity for Ecotourism

Leveraging Colombia’s extraordinary biodiversity, there is a considerable opportunity for the development of Colombia’s ecotourism subsector. Colombia’s potential in this area has increased in recent years as a consequence of the ongoing peace process between the state and the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) rebel group. The peace process has resulted in areas of the Colombian countryside which were previously not safe for tourists and businesses due to conflict becoming open for development. Many of these areas are effectively unspoilt wilderness, offering excellent opportunities for conservation and nature-focused tourism.

Just as the peace process has enhanced opportunities for ecotourism, it is also likely that the growth of ecotourism could help prevent ex-militants from re-arming themselves and assist in the fight against coca production. Demobilized FARC militants, many of whom are likely familiar with Colombia’s forests and jungles, could be assisted to train as tour guides and conservation workers. In doing so, their chances of successful re-integration into society would likely increase. Encouragingly, instances of this sort of reintegration are already underway; in 2018, a group of ex-combatants in San Vicente del Caguán received training as rafting instructors and have established a tourism initiative in their area.

Similarly, the blooming of ecotourism in Colombia can assist efforts to reduce coca cultivation by providing a supplementary income stream for farmers, reducing their need to make a living from illicit crops. Positively, examples have emerged of farmers who have turned away from coca production with the support of ecotourism.

Ecotourism – Obstacles and Limitations

The Colombian government has undeniably provided support to ex-combatants’ entrepreneurial initiatives and taken steps to support the development of Colombian ecotourism more generally. However, projects by ex-combatants in the tourism sector have been less likely to receive approval from the government. Even if projects are approved, delays in the receipt of funds and the uncertainty of long-term support exacerbate the chances of former militants’ enterprises floundering, jeopardising the re-integration process.

It must also be kept in mind that, despite the government and the FARC having signed a peace deal, Colombia’s peace is an incomplete one. Ongoing clashes with FARC dissidents and other armed groups are highly likely to limit the extent to which the potential for tourism can be tapped in certain parts of the country. This factor may also have a dampening effect on tourist numbers over the medium term. Moreover, the government’s fight against coca cultivation is ongoing, and some of the weapons used to fight it are likely to undermine Colombia’s ecotourism potential. Particularly, the government of President Iván Duque is seeking to restart aerial glyphosate fumigation, a practice likely to harm Colombia’s flora and fauna.

While the peace deal increased the prospects for ecotourism in Colombia, it also presented an opening for opportunistic exploitation. In 2020, over 171 thousand hectares of Colombian land were damaged by deforestation, an 8% increase on 2017’s statistics. Evidence indicates that deforestation increased in areas formerly occupied by the FARC after the peace agreement was signed, posing another threat to the promise ecotourism holds for Colombia.

Closing Thoughts

Ultimately, despite the possibilities ecotourism holds for peace and economic growth in Colombia, it alone cannot build a lasting peace or ensure steady economic development. The effects of COVID-19 restrictions have demonstrated the risk inherent to overreliance on tourism for states. To properly leverage its tourism potential and enhance the state’s presence in areas formerly dominated by groups like the FARC Colombia desperately requires funding for infrastructure projects and social schemes. It appears likely that better infrastructure in Colombia’s countryside would improve tourist access and, more importantly, help struggling farmers and small businesses get their goods to market. Thankfully, steps are being taken in cooperation with foreign investors to improve the situation.

Nevertheless, as part of Colombia’s wider peacebuilding and development strategy, ecotourism can make a noteworthy contribution. If nothing else, it is likely to help Colombia’s international image and show the world that there is more to Colombia than conflict and cocaine.

Categories: Environment, Latin America

About Author

Samuel Arnold-Parra

Samuel graduated from LSE in 2020 with a degree in International Relations and History. Since graduating, he has been building up experience in research and analysis. Currently, he is conducting voluntary research on Japanese national and sub-national responses to COVID-19. He is eager to use his skills in Spanish and Japanese to contribute valuable insights focusing on Japan and Latin America.