Since tourism’s larger restart, there’s a growing problem that tourism officials and the industry at large are facing but rarely talk about in their speeches: crime is on the rise, as is social upheaval. Covid has worsened economic inequality, as I wrote back in 2022, as well as exacerbated unemployment and social discontent with political leadership. Throw in inflation and it’s anyone’s guess what tourist area will soon explode in social unrest as a result of this pre-pandemic, extractive model of building paradise amid ghettos.
That’s why Colombia president Gustavo Petro’s urgent call for tourism equity and social inclusion at Asociación Colombiana de Agencias de Viajes y Turismo (ANATO), Colombia’s largest travel conference was so poignant. It was first reported by Bogota’s the city paper, and the conference took place from February 22-24.
Petro mentioned that two of Colombia’s top two tourism hubs, Cartagena and Santa Marta—and not Bogota as one might have expected—are now on the World’s 50 Most Dangerous Cities list, which wasn’t the case in the past. “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,” he told over 1,000 tourism officials in attendance.
Tourism’s inability to bridge the inequality gaps in spite of high arrival numbers isn’t new. This is an industry that is constantly ensuring the news on destinations remains rosy and government and private sector coffers filled, while criminal activity ensues unabated. You wouldn’t know that utter economic desperation is rampant in places and that locals are struggling to afford basic foods and services mere steps from lavish resorts, unless you follow local outlets.
The pickle for the tourism industry, however, is that riots and civil strife are not only more frequent, as a result of increased economic inequality as a result of the last three years, but social tensions are also more evident to visitors because locals are pushing back harder and more vocal than in the past. Travelers have also gained a new level of consciousness since Covid. Headlines spread even faster as well on social media.
If tourism cannot bridge the gap despite touting its arrival numbers and new records in tourism revenue, what good is it to stand on podiums and applaud these results? That’s why Petro’s questions at ANATO are pertinent.
“If a country is engulfed in a permanent conflict, not necessarily armed but social – as is Peru – what kind of tourism can it attract?”— Gustavo Petro,
He continues to examine why Cartagena is seeing such increase in crime, stating: “Cartagena is a society of inequality, so tourism cannot refuse an analysis of the circumstances that occur in the area in which it is developing this type of activity.”
I have seen the Cartagena imbalance of which Petro spoke, when I visited Colombia in 2022. It’s impossible not to notice, even if you never left the touristed Walled City. I still have a vision of the young Black girl with a baby in her arms, standing on cobblestoned streets and begging wealthier Black American tourists for money as they strolled past her. I remember the locals who suddenly showed up by our side (and other tourists’) and began to rap as they followed us down the streets until we tipped them. How else can they make money if tourism does not offer them opportunity to have better?
I also remember the post-dinnertime display of prostitutes in the historic city and what a native resident, with whom we had dinner, pointed to as drug dealers swarming the sidewalks outside bars and clubs. There are also the scenes as well that begin about 15 minutes outside the “picturesque” walled city, where you see the “real Cartagena.”
Indeed this dark side to major tourist destinations exists in many parts of the world. It begs the question of why the disconnect remains at the leadership levels within and outside the tourism industry. How will tourism fix what it has exacerbated and in many instanced caused, when other issues such as deep social class divides and tourism laws and policies that prevent inclusion, continue?
Petro didn’t seem to have an answer either at the time of his speech. But next to the major challenge facing the planet and tourism, which is decarbonization amid intensifying climate disasters, equity is not only equally urgent but intertwined with the latter.
“How can marginalized groups in tourist areas also claim ownership of tourism?” – Petro
And until destinations figure out how to create tourism ownership rather than bury heads in sand by continuing to operate “in a sea of poverty” as Petro says, travelers will have to look past tourism boards’ slogans and learn to make more mindful choices, if they care.
But what is clear: tourism’s model in many destinations of the Global South is utterly broken, no matter what the rebounding arrival numbers might say.