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How Colombia’s peace agreement sent tourism through the roof

In 2016, after almost six decades of conflict, the Colombian peace agreement was signed. Its impact on tourism was both instantaneous and miraculous. Since then, travel to this mesmerizing and diverse gem has continued to swell.

From guerrilla to guide

Frellin Noreña used to be a guerrilla with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He now spends his days guiding tourists down the rapids and waterfalls of the many pristine river gorges near Miravalle, in Caquetá. “We’ve exchanged our rifles for oars,” he told The Economist. “You’d have to be mad to prefer war over peace.” The company he works for employs several ex-guerrillas and is looking to expand its offering to include trekking, wildlife watching, canyoning rappel, and other adventure sports.

And the men of Miravalle are by no means the only ex-guerrillas to exchange guns for guiding. A 2019 academic paper found fully fledged tourism initiatives in 10 of the 24 designated reintegration zones for FARC rebels. Many of these initiatives involve “experiential tourism” that tap into Colombia’s transition from war to peace. Tourists can stay in reconstructed guerrilla camps, visit casas de memoria (houses of memory), and trek along the same trails that were once used as trafficking routes.

Another fascinating academic paper, aptly titled Peace is much more than doves, looked at the potential economic benefits of bird-based tourism as a result of the peace treaty. As its authors explain:

Colombia has the greatest bird diversity of any country in the world, with approximately 1,900 recorded species, equivalent to 20% of all bird species worldwide. Advances made by the Colombian government to achieve greater security within the country – putting an end to the long-standing armed conflict – and to promote ecotourism can help position Colombia as one of the most important bird watching destinations worldwide.

Buffy helmetcrest, rare bird found only in the Colombian Central Andes
The buffy helmetcrest is one of Colombia’s most unique, endemic species found only on Nevado del Ruiz, a volcano in the Colombian Central Andes. (Photo: Juan José Arango, Oxypogon stuebelii - Buffy Helmetcrest - Colibrí Chivito - Barbudito Paramuno 23, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Back to basics

Between 1964 and 2016, Colombia was plagued by a widespread armed conflict that had its roots in political grievances that generated social and economic inequalities, bolstered by illegal economies. The conflict had a devastating impact on Colombian society, resulting in the displacement of millions of people, thousands of deaths, and widespread human rights violations. It goes without saying that it had a significant impact on the country’s economy.

On 2 October 2016, Colombians voted in a referendum to approve or reject a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC, the largest and oldest guerrilla group in the country. The referendum resulted in a surprise victory for the “No” campaign, with 50.2% of voters rejecting the agreement. Despite this setback, the Colombian government and the FARC continued to work towards a revised agreement, which was signed in November 2016 and approved by Congress.

The implementation of the agreement has faced many challenges, and progress has been mixed. By far, the biggest win has been the disarmament and demobilization of around 13,000 FARC rebels. Progress on land reform, rural development, and reparations has been slower. Armed groups that were not party to the peace agreement, such as the Gaitanista Self Defense Forces of Colombia, the National Liberation Army, and some splinter groups of FARC dissidents, have continued to stoke conflict – especially in rural areas and along the border with Venezuela.

FARC Guerilla soldiers in Amazon jungle cerca 1991
FARC guerrilla soldiers in the Amazon jungle, circa 1991. (Photo: Pablo de Tarso Luz Meneghel Sparco, FARC Soldiers, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Working wonders for tourism

Notwithstanding all of these challenges, “from a marketing point of view the peace agreement has worked wonders,” says political scientist John K. Bonilla-Aranzales. “Even before the peace agreement, all of the major cities and the main tourist areas in Colombia were safe,” he explains. “The peace agreement has communicated this to the world.”

As early as 2008, President Uribe launched the Colombia es Pasion (Colombia is Passion) tourism campaign in an attempt to rehabilitate the country’s image. A look at tourism numbers for this period shows that the campaign was relatively successful, with numbers growing steadily. A couple of years before the agreement was reached, President Santos started to invest in tourism. After the agreement, which made headlines around the world, tourist numbers skyrocketed – and they have continued to rise steadily ever since.

Bonilla-Aranzales attributes this to two main factors. First, there have been zero terrorist attacks that have affected tourists in major cities since the agreement was reached. And second, despite their vast political differences, all three men who have served as president since 2016 have remained steadfast in their commitment to growing tourism. “Former President Juan Manuel Santos is part of the Colombian elite and a strong promoter of The Third Way. Former President Duque served as the youngest president of Colombia, and is a strong conservative. And Petro, the current president, was a former rebel from the M19 Movement, who is on the far left of the political spectrum,” he explains. “Nevertheless, they all see the potential of tourism. It’s not an official policy: but it appears to be a shared goal.”

Apart from the obvious COVID-19-induced blip, tourism numbers have been climbing steadily since 2002, and they’ve really taken off since the peace agreement:

Graph - Number of incoming international entries of tourism towards Colombia, 1969-2021

Tourism, the new gasoline?

Many challenges remain regarding the implementation of the peace agreement, according to Bonilla-Aranzales. Not least the fact that President Petro – who, during his campaign, committed to following the agreement to the letter – has now announced that there isn’t enough money to tackle things like land reform and reparations for the victims of the armed conflict. Amid all this uncertainty, many are banking on tourism to lead the way to a brighter future. Back in 2018, President Duque said that “tourism could be the new petroleum industry” (Colombia is an oil exporter), and his successor Petro followed this up with a major tourism drive in February 2023.

While Bonilla-Aranzales is keen to steer clear of the kind of sweeping predictions made by politicians, he is, nevertheless, bullish about the role tourism can play in building a better tomorrow for Colombia. When it comes to the “raw materials” of tourism, he explains, Colombia is supremely blessed. “We have beaches, mountains, deserts, jungles, and rainforest,” he says. “Not to mention an interesting history that spans indigenous civilizations, colonialism, and the emancipation from Spain.” What’s more, Colombians are super-friendly people (despite the decades of armed conflict), and Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world.”

The most resounding proof of Colombia’s tourism chops according to Bonilla-Aranzales is that people who’ve visited the country once invariably end up coming back.

Opportunities and challenges

The 2021 Disney blockbuster Encanto did a great job of showcasing the country’s many attractions, while the Netflix hit Narcos attracted a different kind of tourist to the former ganglands of Medellin. What’s more, Bonilla-Aranzales has noticed a major uptick in the number of international artists that are choosing to tour Colombia. “In the past, famous artists like The Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode, and Guns N’ Roses only went to Brazil and Argentina. But now they are coming to Colombia, too.”

Bienvenidos al barrio Pablo Escobar, graffiti in Medellin, Colombia
“Welcome to the Pablo Escobar neighborhood.” Escobar was the most infamous Colombian drug lord and narcoterrorist who lead the Medellín Cartel. (Photo: Nigel Burgher, Barrio Pablo Escobar, CC BY 2.0)

Of course, challenges remain. US Travel Warnings have a big impact, says Bonilla-Aranzales who explains that while travel warnings for Mexico are done on a state-by-state basis, Colombia warnings apply to the whole country. This isn’t really fair, he says, because all the big cities and the major tourist areas are completely safe.

Another more meaningful challenge is the total reintegration of former guerrillas. While there are several tourism success stories, there are just as many examples of failed attempts to reintegrate former rebels. Simple things like opening a bank account or getting a driver’s license can be very tricky for undocumented guerrillas. And this is before taking into consideration the mental toll of a life spent at war. “Running a business in the city is very different to fighting a war in the jungle,” says Bonilla-Aranzales, matter-of-factly.

But still, he has plenty of hope that tourism can be the shot in the arm that Colombia needs. “Ex-guerrillas know which plants are poisonous, which wild animals live there, and even which birds sing at sunrise. They have extensive knowledge of the biodiversity in the region,” he says. “Why not use this knowledge for ecotourism?”

Why not, indeed?

Keen to be a part of the solution? Check out our mesmerizing Colombia tours, or speak to a destination expert about crafting a bespoke itinerary that hits all the right notes for you and your family.

*Data for the graph, provided by Aranzales, was compiled from the following sources:

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