Air Canada is the first international carrier to announce its return to Colombia after September 1, date set for the reopening of Bogotá’s El Dorado airport. The news that Air Canada will operate three flights a week on the Bogotá – Toronto route comes as Colombians begin the mid-year holidays without any possibility of travel, with all domestic flights suspended under the National Health Emergency.
While other international airlines will make their own announcements in upcoming weeks, especially those that service important gateways such as Miami, Houston, New York and Madrid, many airlines will be forced to reduce frequencies given weak passenger demand, the onset of low-season, strict biosecurity protocols, as well as fearful travelers that a “second wave” of coronavirus could force governments to shut-down airspace once again leaving them stranded on foreign shores.
With the travel industry gripped by uncertainty as to which countries will open completely while others enforce 14-day quarantines for arriving residents, tourists and business travelers, even after Colombia joins the international community with air and sea connectivity, it will take more than an end-of-year holiday season for the country to regain some degree of tourism confidence. Among the many challenges for the government is promoting destinations that witnessed high levels of infections and deaths, including Cartagena and Barranquilla on the coast.
While we are still in the early stages of a disease for which there may not be a vaccine until 2021 – or later – the traveling public will be quick to take to the road once overland restrictions are lifted, and while there’s still no exact date to when this will happen, it is never too early to envision that next outdoor adventure, from self-isolating in a national park to wandering trails that lead to patrimonial towns.
Quarantine has given Colombia’s historic sites time to erase some of the human footprint and this bodes well for travel agents in promoting clean and environmentally sustainable destinations. But there is a question that cannot be answered at this pre-easing juncture: Will international tourists look at Colombia as a destination that ranks high on their post-pandemic bucket list, or will they flock to countries with more developed health infrastructure and return home options if there is a second wave?
Getting a late start on the international tourism circuit after one of the world’s most extended lockdowns, the tinted image of Colombia as “the land of magic realism” may seem too real for travelers in search of safe havens. Other selling points as “the happiest nation on earth” appear ludicrous given the human tragedy that has unfolded across South America. Then, data from the Ministry of Finance that unemployment in Colombia will surpass 17% for the second half of the year, and 7 million will lose their middle-class footing to join the ranks of the poor. Nation promotion at this moment seems nonsensical – even bizarre.
Colombia has plenty of potential in drawing-in international visitors and few nations can match its natural settings and attractions. But above all, Colombian hospitality is the country’s most famous asset and one tourists remember. While travel is on hold until September, beaches and mountains remain, so too, charming villages home to diverse peoples and traditions. These will not be lost to coronavirus, and as the floodgates of the sector inch their way open, the many citizens who depend on tourism for their livelihoods will be more grateful and welcoming to outsiders than ever. And this is hard to beat.