Katharina Cavano l Palladium - Sep 27 2023
Rediscovering Colombia Through Ecotourism and Peace

For many travellers interested in ecotourism, visiting one of the most biodiverse countries in the world would be at the top of their list, but Colombia’s history and reputation for violence has kept people away in the past. According to Diana Correa, Portfolio Manager from UKPACT Colombia Country Programmes, a UK-financed program which funds projects in partner countries to implement and increase ambitions for carbon emissions reductions, that perception is starting to change.

“Over the past decade we’ve seen an increasing change in the perception of Colombia as an interesting destination,” she explains. “Thanks to the peace agreement, enhanced security measures and strategic tourism initiatives, Colombia has become more attractive for visitors as we have reclaimed our identity as a biodiverse country, with beautiful landscapes, welcoming people, and rich gastronomy. This has completely opened up the country for tourism.”

International tourists have increased by 245% since 2005, increasing to 4,606,915 in 2022 alone. Tourism accounts for 58% of the country’s total services exports and has reached an average expenditure of US$1,599 per tourist which has already surpassed pre-COVID-19 figures by 7% (US$1,498 in 2019).

But Correa says it’s not only international perceptions that have changed. “As the pandemic restricted international travels, Colombians started to explore more our own country and, thanks to the peace agreement, we can now discover new places where we couldn’t travel before due to security concerns.”

She shares that recently, she took a personal trip to Charco Azul-Mesetas, a former FARC camp, which today is now a tourism initiative and a historical memorial site, led by ex-combatants and local communities. “It was very striking, not only to be able to step on a jaw-dropping place that used to be off-limits, but to see the change brought by the peace agreement and tourism for both local communities and ex combatants.”

“When you listen to the stories of how their lives have changed, how they no longer live in fear, how they have moved on and forgiven despite the pain, and how they see a real potential in tourism as a livelihood, you understand and feel the magnitude of this amazing shift.”

Amidst this ongoing transformation, both on a local scale and in the eyes of the world, there is a vast potential for ecotourism as a sustainable livelihood which could bring not only economic benefits to historically marginalised communities but also conserving and restoring the country’s biodiverse forests.

52% of Colombia’s land area is covered by forests. It is the second most biodiverse country in the world, with over 314 types of ecosystems, and the highest number of birds and orchids globally. However, beneath this megadiversity, rural areas face economic challenges and lack of opportunities which drive deforestation and pressures the environment. In fact, over the past two decades, Colombia has witnessed an unsettling loss of 3.1 million hectares of forest.

To tackle deforestation, it is necessary for local communities to have sustainable livelihoods that can yield a reliable income derived from a standing forest and well preserved nature, and that’s part of what UKPACT is hoping to address. Correa explains that UKPACT, hand in hand with Implementing Partners such as Awake Travel and E3, has supported building capacities of local communities in post conflict areas across the Amazon, the Orinoquia, the Pacific, the Perijá, and Las Quinchas regions to develop sustainable ecotourism businesses in tandem with conservation initiatives.

The program has delivered marketing, financial, and operational skills training to local communities for designing and commercialising sustainable ecotourism products. In parallel, the project has also built capacities to implement community-based monitoring systems to promote science-based ecotourism and measure sustainable use of biodiversity. “For example, local organisations have been trained on acoustic monitoring. This enables them to record the sounds within an ecosystem, including birds and insects, allowing experts to identify species and analyse the environment’s health”.

She adds that the local communities can use that information, along with their traditional knowledge, to build tourism experiences, such as a bird watching tours or gastronomic experiences based on the local biodiversity. “It’s accomplishing several goals by incorporating science into a tourism experience while also using the data they gather to monitor the destinations. This also empowers communities and gives them better tools to conserve their territories.”

Global perceptions and misconceptions can’t, and likely won’t change overnight, but as local capacities are built up and more tourists flock to Colombia and experience its lush biodiversity, welcoming culture, people, and food, that shift can snowball to the benefit of both Colombians and international visitors alike, while contributing to mitigating climate change and protecting biodiversity.

For more, download the report 'The Real Colombia' or contact info@thepalladiumgroup.com.