By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 02/02/07):
At the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland I lunched with a friend from the local tourist board. “Any good ideas today?” he would laugh as another blast echoed round Belfast. How about an Armalite shooting contest, or an Ian Paisley rally in the rain, or a tour of the Royal Victoria hospital knee-surgery unit? His career, to put it mildly, was on hold.
Similar thoughts occurred over lunch in Bogotá with those promoting Colombian tourism. Beset by media reports of warlordism, kidnapping and narco crime, they seemed trapped in the image stakes somewhere between Somalia and Afghanistan. There is only one guide to Colombia in my bookshop (from the sainted Lonely Planet) against a dozen to neighbouring Costa Rica and Brazil. But then how to sell a country whose most famous son, Gabriel García Márquez, depicts its political default mode as massacre? Do you boast that Colombians kidnap better, and twin Medellín with Moss Side, or plead: why visit Kabul when you can visit Cali?
For all the claims of the electronic age, the gulf between geographical image and reality is as vast as ever. It has taken New York years of effort (and Woody Allen) to recover from the ravages of Taxi Driver and the Death Wish films. It needed just a day’s bombing to eliminate 30% of London’s tourism in 2005. One Hizbullah rocket can empty the hotels of Syria and Jordan. When Reagan bombed Libya in 1986, the Sicilian hotel industry was soon devastated. Tourists are creatures of whim. A single newspaper story decides whom they will bless with their trade and whom they will punish. Thousands of jobs can turn on the outcome.
Of the main South American countries, Colombia is the most unvisited by outsiders. Second only to Brazil in population, its landscape is variously Andean, Amazonian, Pacific and Caribbean. It can be high, low, hot, cold and steamy. It sells oil, coffee, textiles and cocaine to an eager American market. Its physical beauty should be outselling every country on the continent, with the possible exception of Peru. Its people have the delightful habit of smiling at you in the street as they pass, as once in English villages.
Bogotá, Colombia’s mountain capital, has a population of 8 million, more than London. Its ancient quarter still has houses built by Spaniards in the 17th and 18th centuries and boasts the finest museums in Latin America. The Gold Museum’s tiny raft of El Dorado shows native people throwing offerings into a lake, a legend that spurred history’s greediest treasure hunt. Made of spun gold, the raft seems to float serene, spot-lit in a darkened room, surely the most exquisite pre-Columbian object anywhere.
I first visited the Caribbean city of Cartagena in the 1980s and thought I had wandered on to a set for Don Quixote. The walled port of the conquistadors still enclosed cobbled streets and plazas, churches, convents and palaces. Latticed balconies were cooled by palm, bougainvillea and oleander. The surrounding forts were unaltered by time. The baroque headquarters of the Inquisition stood intact. No British colonials had the same genius for creating home from home as did the Spaniards in the Americas. Cartagena was Seville 1700, and still is. It has justly become a Unesco world heritage site.
Cartagena’s convents are now luxury hotels, its houses restaurants and courtyard inns, like Moroccan riads. The city’s mayor is trying to cast it as a festival centre – destroying the old market for a modern convention hall – and turning its image out towards the sunny Caribbean and away from the dark interior. There are festivals of food, film, music and Hispanic culture. Last week the city played host to an eccentric transplant of Britain’s Hay-on-Wye festival, with Anglo-Spanish authors and such luminaries as Wole Soyinka, David Starkey and the ubiquitous Bob Geldof. Down each alley and through every window shimmered the blue Caribbean. It made Hay’s rain-soaked meadows seem like a primitive Celtic mud ritual.
If Cartagena is ever to achieve its just deserts as a Latin American Aix or Spoleto, it needs to get a grip on its planning. Along the peninsular beyond its walls stretch an extraordinary three miles of Miami Beach towers, luxury apartments laundering goodness knows what money. Meanwhile the beautiful classical and art nouveau villas of suburban Manga, where García Márquez set Love in the Time of Cholera, are being demolished, when they should be treasured as tourism assets. Short-term greed is the enemy of long-term prosperity.
But all this is whistling in the wind while Colombia is seen abroad as a narco economy on a par with Afghanistan, and when what news reaches the world’s press is of a drug lord gunned down in Medellín or a backpacker kidnapped by guerrillas in the jungle. Colombia continues to supply America with 90% of its cocaine and 60% of its heroin. As long as these products remain criminalised, it will always be easier for the west to curse and corrupt Colombia for producing them rather than cure itself of consuming them.
Desperate to counter this reputation, Colombia’s tourism chiefs took a bizarre turn. They hired consultants to tell them what consultants always tell hopeless clients: that, irrespective of their hopelessness, they are lovely people. (Ulster’s publicist fell back on the same line, as later did Manchester’s.) Visitors do not go to places to meet people but to do things, or do nothing. The people they do meet are mostly waiters and coach drivers. Undaunted, the Colombians decided they were “passionate” and that “Colombia is passion”.
Something was clearly lost in translation. Passion to English speakers suggests a market already saturated by the Thais. In a wider sense, passion is one quality that outsiders might feel Colombians have to excess. They could have gone the whole Byronic hog and presented Colombia as mad, bad and dangerous to visit. Start with the druggies and hippies and, like India, hope the rest will follow. I would rather have suppressed the name Colombia altogether and sold Cartagena or the Amazonas region or “the coffee trail” as niche products, much as once-troubled Egypt sold Luxor and Cambodia Angkor Wat.
Since the election in 2002 of its ascetic president, Alvaro Uribe, Colombia has struggled to insulate its public politics from its narco economy, and partly succeeded. Uribe flooded the cities with security and drove the guerrilla armies, of left and right, out of prominence, if not out of existence (coca flourishes as ever). The cities and highways are incomparably safer than five years ago, helped by American aid to the police and army. Quiet deals with cocaine barons appear to have forced them underground, while the chaotic business climate in neighbouring Venezuela is pushing investment Colombia’s way. Visitors from abroad are rising, up 65% since 2002.
Yet as long as the west refuses to curb its demand for cocaine – or legalise and commercialise it – the drug will be produced and traded from the entire Andean region. It is economic illiteracy to pretend that demand can be stemmed by curbing supply, and grotesquely unfair to persecute a poor supplier while one’s own elite consumes vast quantities of the stuff. The corruption of Latin America’s political economy by the west’s narco guilt is sickening. The least that westerners can do to atone for this guilt is to visit Colombia and enjoy it.