Isla Barú: paving paradise

Informal tourism on Playa Blanca, Colombia
Informal tourism on Playa Blanca, Colombia

Construction of a bridge linking Cartagena to Barú island, a popular tourist destination known for white sands and pristine water, is causing controversy among local communities who say they have not been compensated for losses related to the project and have not been involved in its planning or execution. Others are worried about the road’s impact on the island, where semi-formal tourism operations provide a livelihood for hundreds of natives.

Additionally, the acquisition by the Corporation for the Development of Playa Blanca Barú (Corplaya) of more than three kilometers of public beach on Playa Blanca, the primary destination for visitors to Barú, for development into a private tourist complex has residents concerned about the loss of business and homes.

Informal tourism on Playa Blanca, Colombia

Development could threaten tourist operations such as restaurants and cabins on Barú, often run by locals in informal settings.

The project is an extension of a process begun in 2006 with an agreement between the government and private companies to allow the construction of several hotels, condominiums, a golf course and more than 20 kilometers of roads on the island. Since then, three luxury hotels have opened on Barú.

Corplaya currently maintains a significant stretch of Playa Blanca roped off and guarded by a private security force known as Segbarú, causing tension with local vendors and residents. A confrontation between locals and the security force briefly became violent in January until police intervened. No one was seriously injured.

Colombian law technically prevents the private ownership of beaches in most circumstances, but gray areas exist and violations of the law are not always enforced.

Over the past week, the bridge project drew protests from natives of the area, including a temporary blockage of traffic to the construction site and ferries to Barú last Wednesday. Protestors said that the city Office of Valorization had not complied with promises made during a consultation meeting with residents from nearby towns such as Pasacaballos, Ararca and Santa Ana.

Among the agreements supposedly not met was the assurance that the majority of construction workers involved in building the bridge be local residents. Director of the Office of Valorization, Clara Calderón Muñoz, told the crowd gathered that officials were waiting for funding to be approved for new contracts and that 45 locals had already been hired by the city.

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A land route to isolated Barú would almost certainly bring more development to the island by reducing the currently prohibitive cost and effort required in transporting even the most basic supplies to the island. Large-scale tourism operations could threaten smaller businesses, mostly run by or in close collaboration with locals, and there is some concern that development could damage the island’s delicate mangroves and estuaries.

On the other hand, residents of Barú and the surrounding communities often suffer from lack of potable water and access to basic necessities, a problem that would be greatly alleviated by opening the island to road traffic.

“The most important aspect of this project is connectivity,” said Muñoz during the signing of papers allowing bridge construction to begin. “Natives won’t have to deal with anxiety in moving to and from Cartagena either in normal or emergency situations.”

While transportation will certainly become less complicated, anxiety is not likely to disappear any time soon for residents of Barú and the surrounding communities as tensions continue in one of the nation’s most relaxing destinations.


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