The Blog

Colombia's Cartagena: Should Government Prioritise Tourists Over Citizens?

Getsemani is the last residential neighbourhood of Cartagena's 'old town'. A colonial city on Colombia's Caribbean coast, Cartagena was recognised as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1984.

'We have a saying: even a dog will dance for silver.' The young street vendor's smile was laced with sadness. I turned to Plaza de la Trinidad, Getsemani's main square. Tourists gather nightly around a succession of entertainers - many of whom are also foreign. Distracted by the current performance (Argentine tango), I almost walk into a gleaming SUV heading to one of Getsemani's new eateries.

Displaced from their Plaza, locals cluster around a card game opposite the square on a street corner. By next year, the street vendor told me, her stall and the locally-run shop on the corner will be gone, replaced by another hostel or restaurant, owned by, employing, and catering for, non-Getsemanians.

Getsemani is the last residential neighbourhood of Cartagena's 'old town'. A colonial city on Colombia's Caribbean coast, Cartagena was recognised as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1984. Tourists have traditionally stuck to the neighbourhoods of El Centro and San Diego, which formerly housed Cartagena's nobility and middle class and boast beautiful renovated colonial architecture. These districts lie inside Cartagena's chunky walls, built in the fifteen hundreds to repel raiders.

Getsemani was home to Cartagena's working class - a mix of freed slaves, merchants and artisans. In 1811, Cartagena became the first of Colombia's cities to declare independence from Spanish rule - a movement begun by the residents of Getsemani. Their descendants now face a new struggle.

During the 1980s Getsemani became a hotspot for drug-dealing and sex work. These illicit trades filled the economic vacuum left by the 2,500 jobs that were lost when the government closed Getsemani's market to make way for a conference centre. Visitors stayed away until recently. Today's cleaned-up Getsemani draws backpackers wanting cheap accommodation, travellers interested in a culturally authentic experience and Cartagenians from richer neighbourhoods exploring Getsemani's new establishments.

But tourism is displacing the local community. Most Getsemanians earn the minimum wage or are unemployed. For families that have lived here for four generations, staying in their homes is becoming an unaffordable luxury. First, because home-owners and landlords cannot afford to repair their ageing properties to standards required by the government to preserve the colonial architecture. They have little choice but to sell to Colombian and foreign entrepreneurs looking to cash in on growing tourism with another hotel or restaurant. Second, local authorities have progressively hiked utility prices and demanded higher property taxes, which residents cannot pay.

By 2013, the number of Getsemani's residents that were born here had fallen to 25.3%, from 71% in 2005. During this same period the number of restaurants rose from 48 to 70 and there are now, on average, 3 hostels or hotels per street. These establishments rarely employ locals.

Commentators close to the community suggest that government and business have made a concerted effort to clear out the poor so their houses can be renovated and repurposed to cater for mass tourism - a tactic used previously inside the city walls. Whether Getsemanians are being displaced by a conscious strategy or reckless pursuit of profits, the municipality has not given them a say in shaping Cartagena's plan for managing and protecting the city's historical centre.

Getsemanians have woken up to what's happening. A few years ago no one here knew the word 'gentrification'. Now it's on everyone's lips. Surprisingly, locals are not opposed to tourism. They just want to hold on to their homes and partake in the economic rewards.

Fundacíon Tu Cultura, a local foundation in Getsemani dedicated to cultural development and community-friendly tourism, has helped to create a bridge between residents, Colombia's tourism and culture regulators and tourism industry representatives: a Commission on Sustainable Tourism. Merly Beltrán, head of the foundation, explains that by giving residents a say, the Commission can allow tourism to develop in a way that benefits, rather than displaces, them.

Government and business should realise this makes economic sense: tourism should depend on, rather than compete with, the community. Travel writers label Getsemani Cartagena's 'coolest' or 'hippest' neighbourhood precisely because visitors can move among a substantial population of locals to gain a more authentic experience of the country.

Even if this economic argument does not convince the government, it is still obliged to protect Getsemanians under international law. Cartagena's designation as a UNESCO world heritage site is a major draw for tourists, which the city wants to retain. But it is breaking UNESCO rules, which specify that local communities must be involved in creating plans for protected properties, and that use of properties by the local community is a 'necessary condition' for 'sustainable protection.' The UN Convention on Economic Social and Cultural Rights also protects Getsemanians' rights to housing and culture. This treaty obliges the government to involve Getsemanians in shaping housing policy, protect the community's cultural life and prevent sudden increases in housing costs.

It is still unclear whether the Commission for Sustainable Tourism will deliver for residents. There are promising signs that locals are beginning to benefit from tourism, through street art tours and a craft market. Residents are also considering how better to attract tourist custom by labelling locally-run businesses and locally produced goods. However, according to Salma Claussnitzer, project manager of Tu Cultura, government and business are still happy to exploit disagreements between residents or make irresponsible financial offers to maximise profits. For example, new upmarket establishments have been known to pay local street vendors to abandon years-old spots nearby, for fear they may put off the refined new clientele.

The government could do more by keeping utility prices and taxes in line with local income, offering subsidies for home repairs, and limiting the sale of locals' properties. Businesses could help by employing local residents and tourists can help by buying local and telling Cartagena's tourism corporation that they do not want Getsemani to become another open-air museum like the rest of Cartagena's old town. Getsemanians have the right to keep their homes, and the world deserves to inherit living cultures, not dead buildings.