Petro at ANATO: Colombia must end “ghetto tourism”

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Cartagena's colonial streets/Richard Emblin

As the keynote speaker on Wednesday for the inauguration of ANATO, the country’s largest tourism and travel fair, Colombian President Gustavo Petro outlined his vision for the sector, and one grounded in a decarbonized economy.

Accompanied in the auditorium by members of his government, tourism promotion agencies, departmental representatives, and delegations from 25 participating nations, President Petro made clear that Colombia is “the land of natural beauty and cultural richness.” His accolades, however, were accompanied by recommendations – and warnings – to business leaders.

With the Dominican Republic invited as Guest Nation at Vitrina Turística ANATO 42, and Archipelago of San Andrés, Santa Catalina and Providencia as the national showcase, President Petro presented a slate of global challenges facing the industry, from recession to climate change, and threats to biodiversity. “In the country’s transition to a green economy, tourism is fundamental,” stated Petro.  But also peace. “A country at war, such as Ukraine, what kind of tourism can it attract? Mercenaries…I expect.”

Petro’s direct mention of Ukraine, as the Eastern European nation marks its first year since Russia’s illegal invasion, was followed by the President’s call for social inclusion and equality within the sector. “If a country is engulfed in a permanent conflict, not necessarily armed but social – as is Peru – what kind of tourism can it attract?” added Petro. “If a country’s natural beauty is accompanied by bloodshed, then it cannot be considered ‘beauty'” affirmed Colombia’s first leftist leader.

As the auditorium applauded the words of Petro during an event in which 1,200 tourism professionals are participating, the Colombian president noted that two of the country’s leading destinations for visitors – Cartagena and Santa Marta – made the World’s 50 Most Dangerous Cities list. “In the past, there was always Cali, Palmira, Buenaventura, and Cúcuta. But never Cartagena and Santa Marta.”

The report published by the Public Safety and Criminal Law People’s Council ranks places with the highest number of homicides per 100,000 residents.

Among the six Colombian cities ranked are Cali (32); Santa Marta (37); Buenaventura (43); Cartagena (47); Palmira (48); and Cúcuta (49). Mexico’s Colima was the World’s Most Dangerous City in 2022.

“There is a job to be done here, not only to have Cartagena and Santa Marta leave this list because it can completely damage their international tourism possibilities,” noted Petro, while also accepting that the Caribbean port city is one of deep social divides.

“It is not possible to sustain Cartagena as a tourism ghetto on its historical side, and on some of its beaches and islands, while sitting in the midst of a sea of ​​poverty.” The Colombian President warned that the social inequalities that exist in cities such as Cartagena and Santa Marta “could explode” unless tourism “irrigates society beyond ghettos.”

“I extend an invitation to articulate tourism with social equity, with culture, with the possibilities of building bridges. This is what I refer to as 21st Century tourism,” highlighted Petro. The Colombian President also stated in frank terms that he would like tourism revenue to increase from US$5 billion a year to US$15 billion, but that his administration “still doesn’t have it very clear” how to reach this objective. “The goal is realistic, maybe not in four years, but six or seven when we complete our energy transition,” he said.