Is Colombia Poised to Become the Next Great Ecotourism Destination?

Colombian wildlife
Colombian wildlife | © Sebastian Moreno / Flickr
Chris Bell

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country on Earth – number one if you measure biodiversity per square kilometre – and is also emerging from the shadows of a brutal civil war that left many beautiful regions of the country off limits to visitors. While Colombia lacks the ecotourism facilities of nearby Peru and Ecuador, this is beginning to change, and ecotourism has a strong future. So is Colombia poised to become the next great ecotourism destination?

Colombia has a level of biodiversity that other countries would pay millions of dollars for: nowhere else on Earth can you find more birds and orchids, and Colombia is second in the number of plants, amphibians, butterflies and freshwater fish, third for species of palm trees and reptiles, and fourth in mammal diversity. There are very few countries on Earth where ecotourists can enjoy more natural variety. In short, Colombia has all of the building blocks required to become one of the planet’s greatest destinations for ecotourism.

The rare Cotton-top Tamarin is endemic to Colombia

So why hasn’t Colombia already become the greatest ecotourism destination? The Colombian conflict left many regions of the country – usually the most biodiverse ones – off limits and unsafe for many years. Due to this conflict-related isolation, the infrastructure is also lacking in many of these regions. While neighbouring Peru and Ecuador can count on excellent ecolodges in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, much of Colombia’s vast Amazon region remains isolated and difficult to access, with little to no infrastructure for ecotourism. However, the potential that ecotourism has to improve rural infrastructure, bring investment and jobs to communities, and offer an alternative to more illicit paths for local people are all huge motivating factors in strengthening and growing this particular sector of tourism in Colombia.

Places such as Araracuara in Caqueta region have huge ecotourism potential

Gradually, however, things are changing and improving. The recent peace deal with the FARC guerrillas has opened up vast swathes of the country to tourism: regions such as Putumayo, Guaviare, Casanare, Narino, and Caqueta – historical hotbeds of conflict – are much safer to visit and are enjoying increased investment and publicity due to their amazing biodiversity and potential for ecotourism. The government is also involved, starting huge campaigns to position Colombia as the best global destination for birdwatchers. With more species of bird than any other country on Earth, Colombia has an incredible future for birding tourism. A recent article in The Economist put it simply and effectively: “Colombia’s future involves fewer terrorists and more ecotourists.”

So now to answer the question posed in the title: “Is Colombia poised to become the next great ecotourism destination?” The potential is absolutely there, as is the enthusiasm and the desire. The infrastructure is assuredly lacking, and it will take a while for the country to build lodges, improve roads, and train guides. Colombia will need a few years before it can compete with the world’s top ecotourism destinations. However, there are excellent ecolodges already operating that will delight any nature lover: El Cantil and El Almejal on the Pacific coast, El Dorado Lodge in the Sierra Nevada mountains, or Hato La Aurora in the Eastern Plains are just a few examples.

Beautiful El Cantil Ecolodge on Guachalito Beach

But these developments are coming, and Colombia has one thing that other countries can’t buy or invest in: the most biodiversity per square kilometre of any nation on Earth! If you’re interested in birds, mammals, flowers, butterflies, frogs, snakes, and trees, then Colombia may just be the best country on the planet for you to visit. The desire that ecotourists are showing to explore Colombia, as well as the increasingly positive publicity surrounding ecotourism in the country, is another massive step forward and an important affirmation to those in charge of tourism that nature is the future of Colombian tourism. Indeed, the future is, finally, looking bright for Colombian ecotourism.

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