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San Andres, Colombia’s Caribbean Package Tourism Destination

“You live in Bogota? How do you manage it? I have heard that in Bogota it gets so cold that sometimes smoke comes out of your mouth.” A conversation with a San Andresano.

Time your flight into San Andres so as to arrive during a daylight hour, that’s my advice. As your airline bobbles in the touchdown turbulence you’ll be grateful to be able to see the runway and that you are on or marginally above it. Arriving at night is a different matter, from any angle; it feels that you are going to plunge into the inky Caribbean.

In early June and for the third time I found myself making the trip to the Colombian Caribbean island of San Andres, and once again, with the onus of the complex ideological baggage in tow of being a middle class travel writer. Hardly the ideal way to begin what should be an opportunity to switch off and tune into a vacation that should sport all the variations of a Caribbean cliché such as white sandy beaches, turquoise waters and of course potent rum-based cocktails.

I feel I must open this blog with a clarification, I love the Caribbean, I love travel and if I could see an economically viable way of doing so, I would opt out on a palm fringed beach in heartbeat. It is this bucolic escape for which I yearn when stuck at my desk, staring at concrete and brick edifices from my window. A Caribbean island for me, as it is for many, is an opportunity to eschew the evils of a connected existence and decamp for a while.

14 years ago I first visited the Colombian Caribbean island of San Andres, and despite swearing never to return, since then I have traveled here on a further two occasions and I am glad for it.

It’s just that visiting San Andres has always felt like stepping through a time portal into the past in terms of tourism, and therein lays a great problem for me. No, I am not a conceited travel writer lamenting mass tourism and mass package tourism at that. Nor am I particularly offended by the duty free shopping on the island, all of the aforementioned is easily erased by just a mere glimpse of the delicious Caribbean waters, feeling the white sand between my toes, the salty breeze on my face and the sun on my shoulders pushing thoughts of the chilly climes of Bogota far away.

What I feel is that once you have enjoyed the spectacular backdrops of the beaches of Sprat Bight, Johnny Cay and San Luis that you are left wanting as an independent visitor to the island given that its evolution as a tourism destination has been almost nothing more than to cater to all inclusive packages.

Step outside your hotel, ostensibly built in the 1980s and very likely resembling a Caribbean version of the Hoover Dam, and very possibly as yet not refurbished, and you’ll have a tough time of it finding a variety of restaurant options in the town. Aside from the local populace, there has been almost no need for a diversification in restaurant options since everyone would eat within their hotel.

And then, there’s the all-inclusive tour of the island and of Johnny Cay – the idyllic picture postcard island just offshore from San Andres – which has created a thriving albeit false economy around suspect attractions such as the “blow hole” and “Morgan’s Cave”.

Working in the travel industry I am very aware of the benefits that tourism can bestow upon an island like San Andres but I remain solid in my belief that this business must involve the community, be environmentally responsible, culturally respectful and economically viable.

My fear is that the way in which tourism is promoted in San Andres does not completely address any of these benefits mentioned.

And my fears were confirmed recently in a meeting with two tour operators in Colombia who on agreement of confidentiality said in no uncertain terms: “We don’t like San Andres, we land and head straight for the departure lounge for the connecting flight to Providencia.”

And another one who declared that it was too difficult to “sell” San Andres to an international clientele not interested in package tourism.

Of course, there’s the antithesis of San Andres which comes in the form of the island of Providencia.

For the more intrepid, Providencia, San Andres’ sister island, more rugged, less populated, further off the grid and wonderfully lacking in mass infrastructure, is a different prospect altogether.  In short, in Providencia you are party to long stretches of unspoiled palm-lined white sandy beaches aurally polluted with lilted reggae beats. And where Providencia is zealously protected and ringed by coral reefs in good state, one wonders how San Andres fares.

We rented a mulita – a faster souped-up version of a golf buggy – and spent a wonderful day tripping around San Andres, visiting a variety of beaches, stopping in small communities and checking out curiosities such as the first Baptist Church up on Tom Hooker hill. This is what I was looking for, away from the crowds, perhaps to sights that are just as visited, but in a more measured fashion if you time it right.

It was when we swung back into San Andres town and stopped for a cold Aguila beer in front of the water when I looked out to Johnny Cay. The white sand ordinarily visible from our vantage point was no longer in view for what can only be described as a critical mass of bodies, crammed together beneath parasols. My only thought was: “this cannot be environmentally sustainable.”

I tried to push these thoughts aside and just enjoy myself.

My justification was that the island of San Andres offers an accessible and at times affordable access to the Caribbean to holidaymakers who would otherwise not be able to enjoy such a place, so exclusive is the region. And of course, for the legions of Argentines and Chileans now making the journey here, it is the most convenient Caribbean location for the three key reasons of flight locations, language and price.

Yes, this is Colombia, but what of the islanders?

With more in common with the South American nations of Suriname and Guyana and the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and Cuba they are Colombian by name but to place an “isleno” in the highland town of Tunja, to provide an extreme example, would be to create the most incongruous social experiment of all time such are the differences.

But, in my attempt to see past the half a dozen or so Riviera cosmetic boutiques, upmarket boutiques and luggage stores; I was able to see glimpses of hope for the island and its future.

14 years ago I stayed in an all-inclusive resort downtown with two friends. Then in 2007 I was back, with my wife mainly to visit Providencia but with a mandatory stopover of a couple of days on San Andres, and we stayed in a massive hotel with a car park view, a true monument to concrete. This time, we rented an apartment which allowed for our own personal space, cooking facilities and a space in which to relax. Restaurants have started springing up, not in a mass form, but they are there, shops are starting to diversify their offer and a greater influx of socially aware tourism appears to be taking a light hold of progress here.

And indeed as tourism continues to evolve in Colombia and the number of international visitors continue to increase (here’s hoping there’s no more incidences like this one), then those in charge of the massive chain hotels, the all inclusives and so on will have to adapt. There will be an obligatory evolution in the nature of tourism in San Andres. This is not to say that the all-inclusive resorts will close down and move, far from it, and long may they remain as an option for many, but that the local people of San Andres are embraced into a more culturally accepting form of tourism that expresses the diversity on offer in Colombia.

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