“Beauty with Insanity,” are the words tourist John Chaput used to describe his January visit to Playa Blanca, one of the few stretches of white sandy beach near Cartagena that isn’t the extension of a hotel lobby or front end of a mall. By reading his account on Trip Advisor, Chaput’s negative impression of a destination popular with day-trippers is matched by hundreds of other accounts, all painstakingly similar in the way they describe the “hordes” of vendors, “terrible food,” and worst of all, “dangerous” conditions when swimming.
Widely promoted as a “must-do” destination for visitors in search of pristine Caribbean waters, Playa Blanca was temporarily closed for two weeks by the Mayoralty on January 20, after a rash of serious accidents occurred involving bathers and boats close to the shore.
Receiving during the holiday season some 4,000 visitors every day who descend on the beach from filled to capacity ferries, Playa Blanca’s capacity is 3,100. Even though a tourist can pay between $45,000 pesos and $80,000 for a return fare, the experience of sitting three rows deep in a shade tent will set you back another $50,000 pesos.
A void in sustainable tourism practices, beginning with over-charging for refreshments and deck chairs to lack of bathrooms and sanitation facilities, pales in comparison with the environmental damage that had been caused by motorized watersports.
With the overcrowding in the water, any accident in a place that is at least one hour away by boat from the nearest hospital can be life-threatening. “Stinking the air with 2 stroke exhaust and driving too close to swimmers, I was hit with an inflatable tube, and my wife nearly struck by a boat,” writes John on Trip Advisor. “I recommend you find another beach.”
For Colombia, a litany of negative reviews on highly trusted industry platforms contradicts the positive exposure in leading publications the nation has grown accustomed to in recent years. According to Andrés Delgado, Caribbean Chapter director of the Colombian Association of Travel Agents (ANATO), Playa Blanca’s temporary closure was inevitable given the “abusive treatment of visitors by vendors” and “lack of regulation to the amount of boats that can enter the bay.” Delgado also believes that many other beaches along the coast could face a similar fate if strict rules are not enforced.
Unless you can afford an overnight stay in a lodge in the archipelago of the Rosary Islands and San Bernardo, many of which are operated by luxury hotel chains in Cartagena, Playa Blanca is one of the few options for visitors on a budget, or part of package tour, to enjoy a day on a white sandy beach and escape from the sweltering streets of the walled city.
As a result of Playa Blanca’s temporary closure, Cartagena Mayor William Dau announced changes to the way tourists will be treated and charged when visiting. “In the short term, we must end all the boating accidents that have occurred and which have caused a lot of damage to Cartagena’s reputation as a tourist destination,” he said. “These accidents also damage the image of the peninsula’s many communities that depend on tourists.”
Among the measures that have been defined are demarked entry and exit points for ferries, private yachts and party catamarans. Only bicycles and rowing boats will be allowed near the beach, and for the many bathers who have been blasted with diesel fumes, all Jet skis and motorized inflatables will be banned.
Visitors will also be restricted to 3,124 a day with the Cartagena Port Authority clamping down on vessels that don’t have their navigation certificates or haven’t presented departure permits. Only boats with trained pilots will be able to enter Playa Blanca. And if paying $20,000 for a lukewarm beer seemed almost akin to armed robbery, the mayoralty will implement price control for products and services. Unfortunately, accidents have to happen in order for local authorities and community leaders to realize that livelihoods are at stake by not preserving attractions. And if mindsets are focused on sustainable eco-tourism then, hopefully, visitors like John will give Colombia another chance.