Rasheeda Bhagat

Colombia marches towards peace and growth

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on September 17, 2018 Published on September 17, 2018

Putting its troubled and violent past behind, this South American nation is fast becoming a magnet for tourists

I write this column from Cartegena, a port city of Colombia, a country with rich history and culture. As several other countries in this enchanting continent, Colombia too has been battling conflict and violence, bloodshed and gang wars associated with arms and drugs.

The first thing that strikes me is that the Airbnb apartment we have booked on the 28th floor on one of the plethora of high rise buildings that circle the Caribbean Sea, is barely 50 metres from its coast.

From Australia to Florida to Mexico the most expensive and sought after properties are close to the waterfront. Yes, there are ecological concerns over excessive construction activity too close to the coastal areas but governments can always build in safeguards.

A Nobel Peace

But returning to Colombia, the image of a country ridden with armed conflict, violence and drug peddlers is changing. Former President Juan Manuel Santos was mainly responsible for bringing peace and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2016 in recognition of his efforts to sign a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to bring the country’s half-a-century-old conflict to an end.

This conflict took the lives of some 220,000 Colombians and displaced about seven million people.

Interestingly, barely four days before the Nobel prize was announced the Colombian people rejected by a narrow margin — 50.2 per cent — the peace accord. The Prize, conferred on him four days later, said Santos, “came like a gift from heaven because it gave us tremendous push, and we interpret it as a mandate from the international community to persevere.”

Conflict resolution and peace are not easy. Violence, displacement, unwanted refugees have been troubling the conscience of millions across the world for long years.

Safe for tourists

But whether the peace accord has officially succeeded or not, Colombia has been in the last few years knocked off the charts for being a dangerous travel destination. Crime rates, kidnappings and killing by drug and arms cartels have reduced considerably and its economy is improving. But despite being a petroleum exporting country — petroleum products account for 35 per cent of its exports — petrol prices are steep at around ₹200 a litre. A push to export more and tighter government funding and increasing security levels are gently nudging up growth rates

In the World Bank ranking on the ease of doing business, Colombia at the 59th spot is far ahead of India at the 100th rank!

The spectacular beauty of the country — beaches, islands, waterfalls, mountains and its exquisite handicrafts as well as vibrant night life — is bringing in more travellers, including the high spending western tourists. The mix of colonial Spanish architecture with a cosmopolitan, modern ambience you get in the newer areas, is irresistible.

Indians are of course a rare sight, but good news for Indians aspiring to explore the Latin American continent is that more and more of central and South American countries are giving visa free access to Indians provided they have a valid US visa of any category or a Schengen visa.

But much more than the stunning beauty and hip art and culture of Colombia, is its lively music which is a mixture of indigenous, Caribbean, European and African music. It is impressive how Colombia has put its troubled and violent past behind and is looking towards an era of peace and development.

As if to confirm this, I met in Bogota, the Capital, a group of Indian women at the newly opened Indian restaurant Indian Palace. Their husbands are working here mainly in the oil, telecom and pharma sectors. Nayan from Kolkata smiles when I tell her that an FB friend on seeing my post from Colombia had asked me to be “careful” in this “dangerous” country. “Oh, it’s just like the perception that Indian roads are crowded with cows! Some of us have been here for years and never felt any danger or fear.”

She also affirms that Colombians are very friendly and always willing to help visitors. Small wonder that the country netted a tourism revenue of around $5.8 billion last year.

Published on September 17, 2018
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