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Coronavirus vaccine distribution has sparked a leisure travel resumption in 2021, and early data indicates leisure vacationers, who traveled widely and freely prior to the pandemic, are eager to return to their prior travel patterns.

Yet leisure travel’s more than year-long pause also highlights the economic fragility of tourism-reliant Caribbean nations and focused increased attention on countries including like Colombia, where environmental and cultural sustainability have emerged as key elements of the national policy, says environmental expert Costas Christ.


Costas Christ
Caption: “The truth is we are nature and when we harm nature, we hurt ourselves.” – Costa Christ.

The globally recognized environmentalist is working with Colombia’s government to advance that nation’s uncommon commitment to ensure the protection of its distinctive cultural heritage and abundant natural treasures.

A top advisor to CEOs, philanthropists, tourism ministers and heads of state, Christ describes the “three pillars” of sustainable tourism as environmentally friendly practices (including recycling and eliminating plastics); support for the protection of cultural and natural heritage and the social and economic well-being of local people.

We spoke with him recently to hear his views on Colombia travel and the post-outbreak travel landscape.

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TP: There are many splendid natural environments across the Caribbean. What features distinguish Colombia in this regard?

CC: When I think of this beautiful planet, and all of its spectacular diversity, culturally and naturally, I think about Colombia. For me, Colombia is like the entire world in one country.

Colombia has a rich and continuing, living, vibrant indigenous heritage and indigenous culture. Many countries will talk about their indigenous heritage as a thing of the past and there are many reasons for that. There is something in the world called colonialism, for example. Or look at the United States. But Colombia is still a vibrant, living contemporary indigenous culture. That’s something to me that’s very unique.

TP: What other aspects of Colombia do you find noteworthy?

CC: When we think of contemporary culture – music, dance, theater, art, culinary heritage, again we see in Colombia this incredible diversity. Colombia’s Caribbean coast speaks to the rhythm of Caribbean heritage, and you can see the influence of Caribbean music and cuisine and cultural expression in those areas. And literally in a very short distance, you may as well be in an entirely different country.

TP: How would you describe Colombia’s natural environment?

CC: I’m hard-pressed to think of another place where you can go from a white-sand beach and within an hour be on a glacier on a snow-capped mountain peak. Then we have the Amazon jungle and dry tropical forests. There is a region of Colombia called the Guanos or the Impales, that is like a glimpse of Africa [with] spectacular vast plains that are home to unique wildlife.

One in 10 species on the planet is found in Colombia. For biodiversity, it’s off the charts. If I was a traveler and I hadn’t had the opportunity to go every place in the world I’d like to go and like to get a sense of all of the beauty of the world in one place, I’d head to Colombia.

TP: How have you worked with Colombia’s government to formulate and advance sustainability policies and practices?

CC: I’ve worked with [Juan Manuel Santos], the president who received a Nobel Peace Prize, to help create and lay the foundation for a sustainable tourism development strategy. I am working with the current government that has built upon that and [signed] into law legislation making sustainable tourism development the law of the land.

That’s a big deal. There are very few countries in the world that have legislated sustainable tourism development into law and Colombia is one of those.

TP: How do you personally view this relationship with the country and its representatives?

CC: I feel privileged and honored to have a relatively long relationship with the country of Colombia. My work is an expression to share with the world all that Colombia is about. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve worked with successive governments over the last seven years. I’ve had the joy to have the Colombian people trust me as a representative to speak to the country.

Beach in La Guajira Colombia
Colombia’s Caribbean coast is an emerging destination for travelers to this diverse nation. (Photo by Brian Major)

TP How has the pandemic travel shutdown impacted travel companies’ thinking regarding sustainability?

CC: As the industry comes to grips and begins to understand the fundamental principles of business, of supply and demand, and as we recognize that this is a business that is dependent on selling nature and cultural heritage, [consumers] will increasingly ask, “What is that business doing to support, protect and improve cultural and natural heritage? What is that businesses’ responsibility?” To improve tourism economic growth destinations and businesses have got to have sustainability as a focus.

TP: Has the pandemic itself changed global thinking regarding sustainability of Caribbean – and global – destinations?

CC: Everything I talked about has been accelerated by the pandemic. This transformation of travel has been going on for decades, but the pandemic led to a beginning to understand a fundamental thing: we will never have personal health and well-being without planetary health and well-being.

As we come out of the pandemic and travelers begin to see this as well, seeking out the beautiful and clean, wanting to snorkel on a coral reef that is bursting with sea life, not devastated, that to me is how the pandemic is helping to accelerate a transition to a brighter travel future.

TP: How do you feel about where the travel industry is in terms of ensuring greater sustainability?

CC: I still do not feel enough is being done for the business community to truly embrace sustainable travel. We need to transition from a thinking [whereby] we measure success by growth of numbers of visitation and start measuring success in our tourism economies by measuring impact in terms of positive impact for people and the planet.

TP: Can you elaborate?

CC: That means not saying, “We went from this number to that one, but “We went from impoverished to improved livelihoods. We went from degraded habitats to revitalized natural systems. We went from damaged coral reef to revitalized coral reefs” by embracing sustainable tourism principles and practices. We’ve made great progress but there’s more to be done.

Countries like Colombia are showing what’s possible at the national legislation level and they are also showing what’s possible at the community level. When it comes to protecting nature we have to remember that we, humans, are part of nature. The truth is we are nature and when we harm nature, we hurt ourselves.

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