Forging a Path Forward for Colombia’s Sustainable Tourism Development
When I was in high school and thinking about my future, it never crossed my mind that I would work in tourism.
The path I chose was to become an electronic engineer, and I started working in the telecommunications sector. As a field engineer I had to travel, mainly to isolated areas in the country. This was back in the late 1990’s, and at that time these places were considered dangerous due to the guerrilla presence. All local attractions were off limits for visitors, meaning leisure travel or adventure offers were non-existent.
For me, passion for travel was still always there. After 15 years of working in the telecom industry, I felt an urge for the kind of work that had a real positive impact in the country. It was then that I decided to change careers, and got into the world of tourism.
My first exposure to the concept of sustainable tourism was at World Travel Mart (WTM) in 2011, when I attended a gathering with this purpose, on behalf of the DMC I was working for, Voyage Colombia.
I met people from different countries talking about sustainability and the importance of it for destinations. From that point on, at every international event I attended (ITB, ATWS, WTM, etc.) I began to see that sustainability was becoming more and more prominent, not because it was a trend but because it is a necessity.
In 2013, I started working with a company called Pure! Colombia. As we were invited to join ACOTUR (Colombian Association of Responsible and Incoming Tourism), I became more involved in operating sustainable tourism offers, which gave me a great feeling of helping my country develop new possibilities focused on sustainable development.
After a couple of years of being a member of ACOTUR, I joined the board for 6 years, serving, during 3 of those years, as President. One of the key areas the ACOTUR Board focused on was to encourage existing and new members to implement more and better sustainability practices. We also worked on promoting sustainability across the sector to help the country develop tourism in a more sustainable way.
Most of the ACOTUR members are small companies, and a big discussion still taking place is whether the Association should allow mass tourism companies to join (currently, large-scale players are not allowed to join). In my opinion, we could have a bigger impact by accepting them with conditions like implementing sustainability practices in their processes; I think this can have a bigger impact because of the large number of clients such companies reach.
Throughout these years what I've found is that people talk a lot about sustainability but most of them do not put into practice all of the theories that they profess. My work with Intrepid Colombia DMC (developing and managing our office in Bogotá), on the other hand, has taught me that it's possible to operate in a sustainable way and make sustainability part of the company's purpose in a real way.
I think in Colombia nowadays, with tourism growing, the biggest challenge is to deal with illegal tour operators, lodging facilities and attractions. Without following any rules, sustainability cannot exist, and this is causing harm to ecosystems, communities and their cultures. This is a challenge that has to be solved with the government's help, meaning that we also have to deal with bureaucracy.
Nowadays, I visit the same isolated areas I used to visit when I was working in telecom, and some of these are now hotspots for leisure and adventure tourists, both locals and foreigners. Since these are recent new destinations, they have the opportunity to develop sustainable tourism the right way.
Caño Cristales in the eastern plains, a successful nature and adventure tourism destination, has served as a model to other new destinations. It started with the local community and the help of the Colombian army, and today it needs no promotion among Colombian travelers (also with a growing number of international visitors before the pandemic).
One of the new destinations that is following the Caño Cristales example, is San José del Guaviare, an area not that far from Caño Cristales that has possibly a bigger potential. Ancient Paintings and beautiful natural sites make this place a great destination to visit.
I think these examples make clear that sustainable tourism can be a game-changer in the country; areas affected by drug trafficking and violence, where locals had no other choice but to work with illegal groups, have been transformed thanks to tourism projects that were implemented correctly and offered solutions for locals to have a life with dignity and peace.
It's really positive to see that ACOTUR has grown from 15 members in 2015 to over 150 members today, which is proof that we now have more local tour operators, DMCs and ecolodges implementing sustainable tourism practices all around the country! There is still a lot to do, but I think the sector in Colombia, with the country’s new Sustainability Policy for Tourism issued not long ago, I think we are on a good path.
Hernán was lucky enough to travel from an early age but never thought he could make a career out of his love for discovering new places. After studying electronic engineering at university, quite by accident Hernan ended up working as a tour leader for Colombians travelling to the Caribbean – which led him to see the opportunity for inbound tourism to his mother country. In 2010 Hernan was able to take the leap to a full-time position developing new products for international travelers to Colombia.