Despite kidnappings, Colombia urges travel

Tourism is up as much as 90 percent due to Colombia's 'democratic security' strategy.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Less than a month after eight foreign tourists were kidnapped in the Sierra Nevadas, a bus full of eager adventurers set out at the crack of dawn for the same site.

Guided by the two men who had been held at gunpoint while the leftist guerrillas kidnapped part of their tour group, the bus departed again earlier this month for Ciudad Perdida, or the Lost City, a 2,500 year-old Indian ruin deep in the Colombian jungle.

"We have to move forward," says Edwin Rey, a guide who had been tied to a bed while the National Liberation Army (ELN) abducted the foreigners, including two Britons (one of whom later escaped), a Spaniard, a German, and four Israelis. "The beauty of Santa Marta can't be erased by a kidnapping."

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Indeed, the seaside city of Santa Marta, the capital of the province of Magdalena, is home to the stunning Parque Tayrona and the Lost City. Bordered by the world's tallest coastal range, the national park is a 37,000-acre ecotourism paradise that includes beaches, reefs, mangroves, 200 bird species, and ruins of the Tayrona Indian tribe.

Getting tourists to return to Santa Marta and other destinations is a small but significant piece of President Alvaro Uribe's tough "democratic security" strategy. The government says that restoring unimpeded travel marks an important step in retaking the country from Marxist rebels and paramilitaries who have been waging war here for nearly four decades. So far, the initiative has been working.

In a program known as "Live Colombia, Travel for Her," the government has launched a series of tourist caravans on holiday weekends to allow Colombians to use once-abandoned highways with confidence. The caravans set off early in the morning from major cities, protected by police and Army forces.

According to the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Tourism, as of July 31, the number of travelers on Colombian roads has increased 90 percent in some cases, compared with last year at the same time. During the first half of 2003, about 5 million cars and 22 million people used the roads on holiday weekends, protected by 3,500 highway police and 22,500 support personnel covering 6,200 miles of road.

But Colombia's immense natural beauty is still held hostage by the nation's violence. Eight of 49 national parks, which cover 10 percent of the country's territory, are currently closed for security reasons, according to Luis Alfonso Cano, a spokesman for the parks agency.

All three of Colombia's illegal armed groups operate in the Sierra Nevadas, often taking advantage of easy access to the Atlantic Coast as a drug-smuggling route. A 2,000-man rescue team is now combing the area for the missing foreign tourists, and Mr. Uribe has reached out to the ELN to negotiate a response, so far with no success. A delegation of priests returned from Santa Marta two weeks ago after failing to make contact with ELN rebels.

Still, Mr. Cano claims Uribe's security strategy has dramatically improved things.

"Tourism has increased in the parks," he says, without citing figures. He adds that the tourist caravans have helped the parks tremendously by "creating the perception that it is safe to travel and practice ecotourism."

Demetrio Riaño, the head of Turcol Travel Agency, which has organized treks to the Lost City for 13 years and headed the ill-fated September expedition, says business has continued as usual in the wake of the kidnappings.

"The people continue requesting [tours]," Mr. Riaño says.

In fact, at the end of last week, Turcol was preparing an expedition for eight adventurers, including four British, Swiss, and Israeli nationals. He says that a half-dozen more tourists are interested in the six-day trek, including a two-night stay.

"We don't think that it's dangerous," asserts Riaño, describing the kidnapping as an isolated "political incident" that had never occurred before and wasn't likely to happen again, especially with new security measures in place. The tour company is now taking some additional precautions, though. For example, it notifies the authorities before setting off on a trek, something it had not done previously.

"The Armed Forces are going to cooperate with us and maintain the zone with a high level of security," Riaño believes. "We will keep trying to promote tours."

José Domingo Dávila, governor of the province of Magdalena, says the government, with the help of travel agencies, must educate the public. He called on Colombians and foreigners to heed the risks in traveling to "territories with complex issues of public order - especially when they want to visit regions of high risk like the Sierra Nevadas, where there are illicit crops" - referring to coca or poppy plants.

With all of Colombia's natural beauty, some people just can't stay away. Following last month's kidnappings, Italian tourist Angel Gaspari waited impatiently for authorities to again allow excursions to the Lost City.

"If there is a way up, I will go," she said, according to the national daily newspaper "El Tiempo." "I'm not afraid, it is beautiful."

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