Why Israeli tourists should reconsider travel to Colombia

Members of the Jewish community in Bogotá clean the entrance of the Israeli Embassy after it was vandalized. Photo: Daniel Rojas Sánchez.

In the world of international travel, destinations often become intertwined with political and social realities. The choices of tourists are not just about sightseeing; they can also be a reflection of values and principles. Colombia, with its diverse landscapes, rich cultural past, and welcoming hospitality, has long been a popular destination for travelers from around the globe. Among the many visitors who have explored the country’s attractions, Israeli tourists have held a prominent place, drawn by the allure of picturesque coastal cities like Cartagena and Santa Marta.

Israeli tourists have found respite and eco-adventure in Colombia, and for young Israelis taking a year off between university and their mandatory military service, one of the most biodiverse nations in South American has always provided a unique and welcoming destination. Recent events, however, have cast a shadow over Colombia’s status as a favored destination for Israeli tourists, compelling travelers to reconsider their travel choices.

The role of tourists in nation-building, and nation-promotion, cannot be underestimated. Travelers, including scores of Israelis who enter this country every year, have the power to shape a Colombia’s international reputation, and influence international perceptions on security. In this context, recent actions and social media statements of Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro should prompt many foreign nationals – Jewish or not – to reassess their travel plans.

President Petro’s recent remarks have thrust him into the global shadows, for all the wrong reasons from a head of state. His audacious comparison of Gaza to Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp where millions of innocent people were systematically murdered, is grotesque. Petro’s comments betray a shocking ignorance of history and diplomacy, but they also reveal a profound lack of empathy, particularly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since the attack against Israel on October 7, in which an estimated 1,200 Israelis lost their lives, Petro has taken to social media to express a staunch pro-Palestine, pro-Hamas stance. In close to 100 tweets, his lack of condemnation of an organization that committed one of the most savage terrorist attacks against innocent civilians – including a young Colombian woman who attended the electronic music festival in southern Israel – has received condemnation from the World Jewish Congress and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum and Memorial.

While freedom of expression must be protected, Petro’s near obsessive social media messages in which he references “neo-Nazis” and affirms Israel commits “war crimes” and “apartheid” in Gaza, demonstrates a leader who fails to grasp the complexities of the Middle East, dismisses the suffering of Israeli civilians, and neglects the importance of responsible leadership in times of crisis.

Equally concerning is Petro’s refusal to condemn a second act of vandalism against the Israeli Embassy in Bogotá. During a gathering on a Tuesday evening, around 30 protesters, many bearing the flag of Palestine and chanting anti-Israel slogans, vandalized the embassy’s entrance yet again. The Embassy was first vandalized during the evening of October 7, hours after Hamas entered Israel to slaughter women, children and entire families. Petro’s silence in response to this second act of aggression against a foreign mission, further underscores his indifference to hate speech and religious intolerance.

In light of these developments, Israeli tourists have an ethical choice to consider. While Colombia has been a beloved destination for many, actions and rhetoric from a political leader can no longer be ignored. Travelers, especially those from Israel, have the power to send a strong message about the importance of ethical leadership and its impact on tourism. The choices we make as travelers reflect our values and our commitment to a better world. Colombia’s appeal has been undoubted, and the great majority of citizens repudiate the political stance of Petro. But now is the time for travelers to rethink the implications of their travel choices.

Petro’s social media activism and failure to condemn the massacre by Hamas will increasingly isolate him on the world stage. Colombia stands as one of the few nations, alongside Venezuela, that has not stood by Israel at a time when the nation witnessed the largest number of civilian deaths in one day since the Holocaust. Colombia’s landscapes will continue to enthrall and captivate, so too the nation’s vibrant folklore, but in the meantime, responsible governance must be accompanied by solidarity and empathy. If we cannot show these, then Colombia’s mountains and beaches must wait to see better days.

Members of Colombia’s Jewish community rally support for Israel outside the Embassy in Bogotá. Photo: Daniel Rojas Sánchez