Local tourism in Colombia will be key for sustaining peace and “tearing down stereotypes and divisions built by the war,” a panel at the 16th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates said on Friday.
“When people talk about post-conflict tourism, they usually talk about visiting exotic places,” said Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for organizing a peace movement that ended the country’s second civil war. “But it is important for Colombia to establish places that can be symbols of peace.”
The forum underscored one of the challenges that Colombia faces as it enters the post-conflict phase to promote national integration in areas of the country that previously were active conflict zones, lacked infrastructure, or had little state presence for decades. Experts argue that local tourism can unify the country and promote mutual understanding.
“The locals will have the chance to tell their stories,” said Cordula Wohlmuther, the director of the World Organization of Tourism. “And the visitors can understand better the conflict there.”
But the Colombian government also has the monumental challenge of restoring law and order to areas of the country previously controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Locals fear that dissident FARC rebels who refuse to demobilize or criminal organizations such as Los Urabeños will swoop in and claim former FARC strongholds, bringing increased bloodshed. But President Juan Manuel Santos has guaranteed that the Colombian military will control these areas.
“It will be the State that comes in and establishes law and order,” Santos said in September.
The Colombian government, for its part, has already started post-conflict tourism initiatives, including a campaign launched in March to “rediscover tourist destinations across the country that were affected by the conflict,” including destinations in Boyaca, Santander, Cauca and the Western Plains regions.
“With peace, tourism is projected to increase by 30 percent,” said Cecilia Álvarez-Correa, the Minister of Post-Conflict, Human Rights, and Security, in a March statement. “That is why we want to promote economic development in these regions and show travelers a Colombia that is now larger and with magical and enchanting landscapes in destinations that they never imagined existed.”
The panel echoed the sentiments of Santos’ speech during the summit’s opening ceremony on Thursday in which he called for unity in place of fear.
“When there is fear, there is ignorance. We see the other as strangers, as threats,” Santos said on Thursday. “Fear gives rise to violence, tension, and discrimination…We need to go from fear, separation, and exclusion, to love, compassion, and unity.”
After 52 years of war, the potential not only for tourism dollars is on the horizon, but also an opportunity for national reconciliation.
“How do we encourage people from Bogotá to go to the Pacific coast?” said Gbowee. “When people visit places, they ask questions about stereotypes and misconceptions. For a country moving from war to peace, local tourism will help sustain peace.”