The new cost of doing business in Colombia

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Colombia. While the name evokes fear, curiosity and maybe even something like excitement for many people, to me it conjures up images of mosquitos, fabulous fruit, warm weather, dancing in the streets and good times.  I take for granted the opportunities I’ve had to know this country, as a Colombian-American, but I also appreciate them very much.  I can remember times when, as a child, Bogotá’s streets were so clotted with people, vendors, carts and buses that getting from an aunt’s house to the airport, or downtown, or a money exchange, took hours. But the country has made vast improvements in the almost 30 years I’ve been going back and forth (that sounds super crazy to me), and one of the most interesting ones I’ve  eagerly watched is that of the tourism industry.

Colombia’s lush vegetation, food, nightlife, natural resources and history make it an intriguing and exciting (or peaceful, if that’s what you want) place to visit.  in that sense, it’s a lot like Thailand, which  has boomed as a tourist destination for  all of the above reasons and its friendly people, great beaches and very affordable cost of living and travel.  As Colombia’s violence decreases and more people visit the country, it too will undergo the stresses and rewards of being a tourist destination.

I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I want people to know this county and see it for the beautiful place it is, not just a drug and violence-riddled  news blurb.  As someone who loves to visit new places and understand them for myself, I want others to be able to delve into the complex and amazing offerings that Colombia has.  And yet I worry that the things that make Colombia such an amazing place–the flora and fauna, the people, the land–will be further corrupted (in a different way than currently) by visitors.  And that worries me.   It’s the dilemma of all developing nations, and as someone who has ties to the country but does live outside of it, I’m not sure that anything I have to say about this dilemma is legit, as it is an outsider’s perspective.  But I do know that recent stats from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor note that

The lessening violence and reduction in economic inequality are among many developments driving the positive economic trend in Colombia and giving its citizens hope for a better future. As a result, the country is seeing a great expansion in its entrepreneurial environment. According to the most recent survey by GEM (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor), the world’s largest study of entrepreneurship, 20.6% of respondents in Colombia in 2011 reported they had started a company within the last three years…

 and this is great news for the country and the hospitality industry, and for all the people of Colombia who are “hoping for a better future.”

The one thing I can say as an outsider is that in building these new enterprises, those who do business in Colombia need to put in place now, as the tourism industry begins to bud, effective portals for communicating with outsiders.  For instance, Facebook pages, effective websites,  employees who can communicate with non-Spanish speakers– all of these things will help them reach the people who are interested in the country (for the right, and yes, unfortunately, the wrong reasons).   Also just as crucial for these businesses is hiring people who care about the country’s assets and can educate outsiders on them.  The government has instituted many initiatives on this front, but as is the case with any movement like this, the people must also be involved.  And when many in the tourism industry are outsiders (I find an inordinate amount of Dutch and Swedish hostel owners when I’m there), do the businesses care enough to do these things?  I’m not sure, but I hope so.

This is all on my mind today as I attempt to book a hostel in Cali at the end of the year.   The  fair will be going on at that time, so I’m trying to book now, to ensure my cousin and I  have a place to stay.  But I’m finding it difficult to book something at the hostels I’m interested in simply because they don’t offer credit card payment options.  You might laugh and say, “ah yes, first world problems,” and you’d be right.  Last time I was in Cartagena a German room-mate laughed at me when I used my credit card to pay for dinner at a nice restaurant–“you Americans use your cards for everything,” she said. It’s true.  But it’s also a necessary cost of doing business. If Colombia hopes to ensure continued success for its entrepreneurs and country, this “first world problem” will increasingly become one of their problems, as they too, move into first world status.  My hope is that as business owners move forward in whatever venture they’re in, they will be able to think about the ways to best meet their customers needs AS they continue to uphold the beauty and richness that is Colombia.

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