The first cruise to make a stop along Colombia’s Pacific coast arrived Friday with 290 passengers aboard, according to national media.
The cruise stopped in Bahia Solano, a largely undeveloped bay in the western state of Choco popular for its beautiful scenery, whale watching, scuba diving, rain forests and traditional Afro-Colombian food, music and artisanry. The ship will remain in the bay for a day before heading to Panama and the Caribbean.
“This is an opportunity to send a message to the world,” said municipal Mayor Omar Vidal, as reported in the El Colombiano newspaper, “so that Colombia learns and understands what it has in Bahia Solano.”
Bahia Solano, like the state of Choco and the greater Colombian Pacific, is characterized by high levels of poverty. Various armed groups are active in the surrounding areas and terrorize local communities.
With that in mind, Vidal is hoping tourism can help generate revenue and jobs in his municipality and encourage the government to invest in infrastructure.
Addressing concerns about the impact large-scale mineral extraction and illegal mining have had on Choco’s natural resources and environmental health, Vidal said, “We’re not going to allow it. We are convinced that our development depends on maintaing our ecosystems, just as we haver conserved and want to maintain artisanal fishing as an opportunity for food independence for our people.”
Cruise ships, however, have been linked to any number of environmental issues. It is not clear, for example, what effect the industry would have on the local whale populations that draw other tourists to the bay, especially as cruise ships have been known to accidentally kill whales in other parts of the world.
Furthermore, while the economic advantages of cruise ship tourism have been toted by the Colombian government, the cruise industry’s well-documented practices of offering all-inclusive packages and actively discouraging spending on land undermine those benefits.
Infrastructure accommodations tend to be paid using public funds, but, as Global Travel Sector News has reported, 82% of cruise profits are retained by the ships themselves, which pay minimal or no taxes at port, while only 18% is dispersed on shore.
Colombia’s policy of sharing certain public revenue streams across the various states and national governments also means that whatever money does stay in Bahia Solano from cruise tourism could wind up being a fraction of the total.
Colombia’s overall cruise tourism, centered on the greater Caribbean industry, grew over 25% last year, according to government figures, and President Juan Manuel Santos announced a plan last fall to boost activity along the Pacific coast during the global industry’s most important annual conference, held last year in Cartagena de Indias.