The fight to make travel sustainable in Colombia is one to which many Colombians can relate, especially those who have been to Colombia or live in Colombia. In Colombia, travel has become a booming industry with the recent opening up of the country to tourism and with the low cost of air fares. The domestic tourism industry has grown three times since opening up to the world in 2010 and is now worth $2.8 billion, according to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism. However, with the increase in tourism has come an increase in air pollution, litter, and water pollution.
A few years ago, there was a big push within the travel industry to promote sustainable travel in Colombia. At the time, I wrote a few stories for my blog on the subject. However, little has been done to keep up the momentum.The spread of the coronavirus vaccine has led to a resurgence of travel in 2023, and early indications are that holidaymakers who travelled extensively and voluntarily before the pandemic may want to resume their previous travel habits.
But the more than a year-long travel hiatus also shows the economic vulnerability of Caribbean countries dependent on tourism and has drawn attention to countries like Colombia, where environmental and cultural sustainability has become a key element of national policy, said environmentalist Costas Crist.
Caption: The truth is that we are nature, and when we hurt nature, we hurt ourselves. – Costa Christa.
An internationally renowned environmentalist is working with the Colombian government to promote the country’s extraordinary commitment to protecting its extraordinary cultural heritage and rich natural resources.
A senior advisor to business leaders, philanthropists, tourism ministers and heads of state, Crist describes the three pillars of sustainable tourism as environmentally friendly practices (including recycling and plastic-free), support for the protection of cultural and natural heritage, and the social and economic well-being of local communities.
We met with him recently to hear his views on travel to Colombia and the post-disaster tourism landscape.
TA : The Caribbean has many beautiful natural landscapes. What are the distinctive features of Colombia in this regard?
CC : When I think of this beautiful planet and all its impressive cultural and natural diversity, I think of Colombia. For me, Colombia is like the whole world in one country.
Colombia has a rich and uninterrupted indigenous heritage and culture. Many countries speak of their indigenous heritage as something of the past, and there are many reasons for this. For example, there is a thing in the world called colonialism. Or look at the United States. But Colombia remains a modern and dynamic indigenous culture. It’s very special to me.
TA : What other aspects of Colombia do you think are worth highlighting?
CC : When we think of contemporary culture – music, dance, theatre, art, culinary heritage – we find this incredible diversity in Colombia. Colombia’s Caribbean coast is laced with Caribbean heritage, and you can see the influence of Caribbean music, cuisine and cultural expression in these areas. And in no time at all, you’ll find yourself in a completely different country.
TA : How would you describe the natural environment of Colombia?
CC : I can hardly think of another place where you can go from a white sand beach on a glacier to a snowy mountain peak in an hour. Then we have the Amazon jungle and the tropical dry forest. In Colombia, there is an area called the Guanos or Impales that resembles Africa [with] impressively large plains that are home to unique wildlife.
One in ten of the world’s animal species is found in Colombia. In terms of biodiversity, it is unbeatable. If I were a traveler and I didn’t have the opportunity to go to all the places I wanted to visit, and I wanted to discover all the beauties of the world in one place, I would go to Colombia.
TA : How have you worked with the Colombian government to develop and promote sustainable development policies and practices?
CC : I worked with [Juan Manuel Santos], the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, to lay the groundwork for a strategy for sustainable tourism. I am working with the current government, which was inspired by this and signed a law making sustainable tourism the law of the land.
This is very important. Very few countries in the world have adopted sustainable tourism laws, and Colombia is one of them.
TA : How do you personally assess this relationship with the country and its representatives ?
CC : I feel honored and privileged to have a relatively long relationship with the country of Colombia. My work is an expression of my desire to share all that is Colombia with the world. I have been fortunate to work with several successive governments over the past seven years. I was happy that the Colombian people gave me the confidence to speak as their representative for the country.
The Caribbean coast of Colombia is a new destination for travelers to this diverse country. (Photo: Brian Major)
TP How has the pandemic travel ban affected travel agents’ thinking about sustainability?
CC : As the industry comes to its senses and begins to understand the fundamentals of the industry, supply and demand, and as we realize its dependence on selling nature and heritage, [consumers] will start to ask more and more questions. What does the company do to support, protect and enhance cultural and natural heritage? What is the responsibility of this company? To improve the economic growth of tourism, destinations and businesses should pay particular attention to sustainable development.
TA : Has the pandemic itself changed global thinking about the sustainability of Caribbean – and global – destinations?
CC : Everything I mentioned was caused by the pandemic. This evolution of travel has been going on for decades, but the pandemic has brought us to a fundamental realization: We will never have personal health and well-being without global health and well-being.
If we come out of the pandemic and travelers start to see that, that they’re hungry for beauty and cleanliness, that they want to snorkel on a living coral reef that hasn’t been destroyed, then I think the pandemic is accelerating the transition to a better future for travel in that way.
TA : How do you assess the situation of the tourism sector with a view to greater sustainability?
CC : I still feel like the business world isn’t doing enough to really embrace the idea of sustainable travel. We should no longer measure the success of the tourism sector by the increase in the number of visitors, but by the positive impact on people and the planet.
TA : Can you tell us more?
CC : It means not talking: We went from so-and-so to so-and-so, and we went from poor to better living conditions. We have moved from degraded habitats to regenerated natural systems. By applying the principles and practices of sustainable tourism, we went from a damaged coral reef to a revitalized coral reef. We have made a lot of progress, but we still have a long way to go.
Countries like Colombia show what is possible at the national legislative level, but also what is possible at the municipal level. When it comes to nature conservation, we must not forget that we humans are part of nature. The truth is that we are nature, and when we hurt nature, we hurt ourselves.
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