It is always very disheartening to hear stories of why someone got mugged in Bogotá. As is often the case, it’s out of sheer vulnerability of having just landed in a foreign city, and not knowing the language. Last month, a British national decided to explore the capital’s historic Cementerio Central, believing that in Colombia we also celebrate the Day of the Dead. It was a rather inoffensive judgement call – but a bad one, to say the least – given the fact that Mexico and Colombia do share strong cultural and historic ties, but celebrating Día de los Muertos on November 1, is not one of them.
The night before Martin, a well-respected newspaper journalist from London got mugged as he approached the cemetery gates, we talked about the security situation in the capital. I explained how, like any major city in Latin America, there are places best left to the locals, and if in doubt, walk in to the nearest shop to ask for help. It’s better to spend a few “quid” on a taxi, to go a few blocks out of a dodgy zone, than to lose a camera, credit cards, and worst of all, your passport. In more or less these words, I tried to get the message across a table in one of Bogotá’s best restaurants.
But exactly the opposite happened the following day when Martin decided to wander down the Calle 26 in broad daylight. Just past the Avenida Caracas, three thugs approached, pulled knives and stripped him of everything. He managed to get back to his hotel unharmed – the best part of this episode – and didn’t leave his room for two days, except for a quick trip to the British Embassy to get a temporary passport.
At times it seems futile giving advice about Bogotá that clearly falls on deaf ears, especially, in hindsight, the fact that criminals can strike at any time, and in any place in the world. But, I am curious as to where Bogotá keeps its Tourism Police? Or, if there were any police between the Plaza de Bolívar and Cementerio Central to at least pull this lanky, pale-skinned extranjero aside and tell him in their Google English, to turn back!
If Colombia wants the world to visit, then Bogotá as the country’s main entry point can’t leave tourists scrambling to borrow money and get new passports. That said, the capital, like rest of Colombia, needs to expand its tourism potential, and one which can’t be relegated just to advertising campaigns, or relying on international media outlets to publish yet another story on boutique Cartagena. Reliable tourism, like dining out in a good restaurant, starts at the door or the moment you get off the plane. For Canadians, this means, having to form a single line at Migración Colombia to shelve out $171,000 pesos per person (approx. US$60) in a reciprocity fee in order to enter this country. No other foreign nationals are charged money at an immigration booth upon arrival – just Canadians. Now, if you’re a family of four, this is hardly an incentive to return even before your holiday has started. What may be a minor talking point between governments regarding biometrics and visa processing fees is not understood by the tourist who took a chance on a Colombia trip.
Like so many aspects of our current government, everything on the surface appears to be just fine or – as Colombians like to say– todo bien! Tourism, like other important economic clusters, is viewed as a post-conflict problem solver. But, go beyond the catchy slogans promoting this land as Magic Realism, and there are plenty of colloquialisms to describe Colombia and safety.
You may be able to trek up to the Lost City in Tayrona without a helicopter escort now, but if you break an ankle while wandering those ancient footpaths, it could take you two days to reach the nearest hospital. The same applies to adventure sports, such as white water rafting, deep sea diving or strolling down a cobble stone street in La Candelaria.
In order to really promote tourism to the outside world, this country needs well-trained professionals on the ground, including a bilingual police force that, instead of just randomly checking cédula identification cards, can respond to an emergency. This may seem like a far-fetched proposition, but if Colombia wants to compete as an international travel destination, it needs experts in the health sector who can respond to an emergency call in English, and hotel staff that should always advice guests where and where not to go. These are obvious tourism standards, and for a country that can offer enriching urban or rural experiences, one bad incident with a foreigner is simply one too many. And as for Martin, I’m not sure if he’ll return. Maybe, he’ll muster up the courage for Mexico and finally live his Day of the Dead.