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food / travel

Medellín: When Tourism Booms Are Bad For A City

Tourism has become big business in Medellín, Colombia, but it may also be fueling the city's worst sociocultural traits and encouraging drugs and abusive sex work.

Image of a souvenir store in Colombia.

November 23, 2018 - T-shirt and souvenirs store in the Junin street in the downtown of the city Medellin, Colombia.

Daniel Romero/Vwpics/ZUMA
Juan Manuel Ospina


BOGOTÁ – I seldom manage these days to visit my hometown and birth province, Medellín in Antioquia, because of work or for any number of other reasons. But the city will never cease to surprise me for, as I keep telling friends, we're a hard lot in Antioquia — for better or worse — and won't suffer mediocrity. Like every other bombastic claim, there is a bit of truth to this.

I am particularly struck by the way tourism has flourished in the city — if it isn't a passing fad. But it is a shoddy type of tourism, I must say: opportunistic, and eagerly fueled by local businesses. They see tourism as a new gold rush, which also fits nicely into local folk's natural inclination to be welcoming and receptive.

While their hospitality is undoubtedly sincere, so is their business sense. Where there's money to be made, we're on it. The mid-20th century president, Alberto Lleras Camargo, used to say that tourism turns regions into prostitutes. He feared local communities would end up selling themselves to anyone with money, burying their culture and souls, and sacrificing themselves on the altar of the insatiable idol of profit.

The new gold

In principle, there is nothing wrong with tourism in Antioquia. But when I see how it unfolds, I think of Lleras' words. Clearly, the reopening of societies and economies after the pandemic has reinforced a desire to be free and independent, to travel light and just float around, here, there and anywhere. It's the return of a limitless world, if you have money, and if you don't – well, just get some.

As moms used to say, not so quaintly, in Medellín: "Son, find the money, full stop!" We are living in a big old cash-and-carry market, a free-for-all of desires and possibilities. We all have needs apparently that can and should — nay, must — be satisfied. As any paisa or Medellín native will tell you, hágalo: Just do it.

Image of tourists outside in Medellin, Colombia.

Tourists in Medellin, Colombia.

Gustavo Sánchez

The angst for travel

Our needs and unmet desires can wildly differ of course, ranging from essential necessities and a desperation among many to survive, to the ability and resolve of others to satisfy their angst for distraction, travel and thrills. When it comes to tourism, their money — and the local economy's own needs – combine to sweep aside effective restrictions by competent, or incompetent, authorities tasked with keeping the social peace.

The result is that our town is becoming another Thailand, that holiday hotspot notorious for sex work and drugs. In our case, it has gone beyond just adult women to include youngsters of a definitely illegal age, as the parliamentarian and former city councillor Luz María Múnera has noted. In some working-class districts of Medellín, foreigners simply have to leave a passport 'as guarantee' before they can take a girl with whom they do as they please. Then they drop her off and recover the passport!

What a disgrace! As for the government, it's too busy with its own business, whatever that may be. I can only think of our poet León de Greiff's observation on how we are in Antioquia, which I used to consider excessive but sadly, no more: "Gossip, Catholicism and an utter blindness of minds ... as if it were all about wealth, stock market machinations and stuffing your belly."

* Ospina, a former senator, is a leader of Colombia's Dignity and Commitment party.

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