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With Jetblue’s 2014 launch of direct flights to Colombia and last year’s Delta announcement of non-stop routes to Medellin and Cartagena, the country has been experiencing a tourism boom unlike any other. Virtually overnight, Colombia has gone from a place that evoked hesitation in even the most seasoned travelers to a hot spot for overworked Americans seeking a respite from their daily lives.
At the helm of Colombia’s tourism sits Cartagena, the country’s seaside colonial city flanked by balmy Caribbean weather and coveted beachfront views. Once home to famed Colombian author, Gabriel García Márquez, Cartagena is often hailed as a romantic city with old world charm.
With the rise of tourism, Cartagena may soon be sacrificed on the altar of hotel brands, restaurant chains, and other comforts catered to foreign visitors. According to Colombia Reports, Cartagena is the second most visited city in Colombia (the first being Bogota) with almost 12% of incoming tourists — majority of them Americans — booking stays at the beachfront destination.
Cartagena’s residential community, Bocagrande, is starting to resemble Miami with its glass skyscrapers obstructing views of the ocean and widely recognized chain stores pushing out small business owners. It’s a story that’s been told countless times: a destination becomes trendy, eager tourists come rushing in, and any unique element of the place is stripped away in the name of investors.
The best example of Cartagena’s influx of tourism is seen on the beaches of Playa Blanca, just a short boat ride away on the neighboring island of Isla Baru. It’s hard to imagine a time when Playa Blanca’s sugary white sand and turquoise blue waters were untouched. Today, the beach is a veritable circus of banana boat rides, drunken tourists, careless litter, and barefoot locals hoping to earn a Colombian peso in exchange for the sale of a coconut.
Cartagena is now teetering on the brink of the off-the-beaten-path appeal it once promised and the westernized metropolis it is quickly becoming. Whether it’s a hole-in-the-wall restaurant or under-the-radar destination, tourism has a knack for permanently changing a place once it’s shoved in the spotlight. There will never be a better time to visit Cartagena then at this very moment as it may soon cease to be the Cartagena it once was.