Posted by Sebastian Castaneda on Nov 11, 2009 Leave a comment

Promoting the real Colombia

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Tourism can be a blessing or a curse. A blessing when it can be sustainably developed. A curse when a country’s economy is fully dependent on this paranoid industry. The former is the path that the Colombian government is fixated on. The controversial campaign of “Colombia is passion” and the desire to turn Colombia into medical tourism hub are testament of this. The potential is phenomenal and unlike many other countries Colombia can develop many different types of tourism industries; among them some never before conceived, but potentially beneficial.

Tourists are always drawn by the exotic, by whatever they can’t find in their own countries. Be it astonishing natural settings, distinctive cultures, rich histories, smiley and friendly peoples etc. Colombia has the ability to meet any of those touristic needs and more.

Yet, most Colombians have been programmed to promote the country in the same way. The typical answer that a foreigner will hear when asking a Colombian about the country is that “Colombia is a beautiful country with wonderful beaches, mountains, friendly people, and of course with the most beautiful women.” There are even businesses specializing in teaching people how to promote the country. For a fee of US$ 110 anyone can become a “multiplier” able to give conferences on “why to believe in Colombia.”

When promoting the country, most Colombians consciously avoid mentioning other areas that Colombia is well known for: violence, druglords, massacres, guerrillas, paramilitaries, internally displaced, cocaine, kidnappings, corruption, etc. Naturally, any person that actually promotes the real Colombia would be called unpatriotic to say the least. After all, Colombians are tired of hearing all the negative stereotypes that the country has deservedly gained.

Nevertheless, these so call negative areas give Colombia a comparative advantage. As any economist would argue, comparative advantages are there to be exploited. This is something that Colombia has done extremely well as the export industries of cocaine and paramilitaries can attest. But appropriate touristic attractions that seek to exploit the real Colombia would certainly attract a wide range of tourists and may pioneer a change in attitude of locals and foreigners alike. The idea is not as insane as the readers may be thinking.

Let’s take for instance the obvious industry: cocaine. It’s futile to hide that Colombia is the source of over 90 percent of the cocaine entering the U.S; as it’s pointless to conceal that the US$ billions of the cocaine trade are funding crimes by paramilitaries, guerrilla, army, as well as contributing to endemic corruption in all sectors of society. But Colombians continue deluding themselves by focusing on other more positive attractions that the country has to offer or downplaying the negative stereotypes that country is known for.

Other more realistic approaches are based on explaining foreigners of the negative effects of cocaine for the country. For instance, Casa Kiwi, a hostel in Medellin, widely visited by backpackers, states in its website that, “If not for your own well-being, we would encourage you to refrain from supporting violence against the Colombian people by purchasing cocaine.” Another example is the Colombian Vice President, Francisco Santos, who travels around the world explaining that, “every gram of cocaine you inhale destroys four square metres of rainforest.”

These are of course important announcements. But they do not achieve their purpose of dissuading the consumption of cocaine or explaining the complex effects that cocaine has in the country.

The correct approach may be based in creating real life scenarios that provide first hand experiences to the effects that cocaine has in society; something similar to what museums are for culture and history. In Colombia there are museums devoted to coffee, gold, sugar cane, indigenous culture, even bullfighting. Therefore, something resembling a cocaine museum should not be such an absurd proposition, more so when there are tourists visiting drug labs already.

The importance of a cocaine museum is the educational purpose that it would have. It can explain the process of making the coca leaf into cocaine, which includes adding sulphuric acid, sodium carbonate, acetone, ammonia and potassium permanganate. It can then illustrate the extensive social, ecological, economic and political problems that entail the production and consumption of one gram of cocaine. It could offer, therefore, a crash course to understand the realities of the country.

A cocaine museum would not encourage cocaine consumption. Rather, it could become a powerful deterrent by raising the consciousness of local and foreigners alike. Foreigners would be more aware of what lies behind that innocuous line of coke. For locals it would be even more significant since they would have to accept the realities of the country. Only by accepting those realities would they be able to change the catalysts of the trade. A cocaine museum would only be the start.

Colombia may potentially rival other country’s particular touristic attractions. For instance, instead of going to Germany to see the remnants of concentrations camps, people could visit abandoned FARC’s camps; instead of going to Vietnam to observe the atrocities of the U.S. sponsored war, people could visit Colombia’s deserted towns and dead agricultural fields due glisophate fumigation; instead of going to Cambodia and Rwanda to learn about genocide, people could visit the mass graves of the paramilitaries; instead of going to South Africa to learn about apartheid, people could experience the geographical apartheid and institutionalized racism in Colombia; instead of going to parts of Africa to get a glimpse of children dying of hunger, people could visit particular towns in Colombia.

Only by showing the real Colombia to tourists and locals alike can Colombians accept and start taking actions to change the country; a country that everyone knows, but everyone conceals.