Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Cartagena in the Spotlight

article from April 18, 2012
by Julie R Butler

If the name Cartagena once conjured up images of Colombian drug lords, or perhaps Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner fighting off scary strongmen and bumbling smugglers in an old, crocodile-infested fort, this Caribbean beach resort has now become synonymous with prostitution and the United States Secret Service.

Sex tourism

Yes, sex tourism is big business in Cartagena (that’s with a regular “n” sound, not “ñ,” as Michael Douglas mispronounced it in Romancing the Stone), as it is elsewhere in Colombia. Prostitution is legal in the “tolerance zones” of such tourist cities as Cartagena and Bogota, with the tolerance going well beyond the officially sanctioned areas. According to an anonymous source claiming to operate a sex-tourism agency in Cartagena, the secret service agents were “idiots” for going the informal route instead of paying for a more classy service, where the women are paid in advance.

Although the tolerance for the adult sex trade is greater than it should be, the Colombian government has been working to crack down on child prostitution and human trafficking in recent years. These are seen as a growing problem in Latin America, especially as developing nations are emerging onto the world stage and attracting attention to themselves by hosting large events such as the recent Summit of the Americas and the upcoming 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics to be held in Brazil. Thankfully, there were no minors involved in the secret service sex scandal. In fact, Cartagena has actually proven itself to be serious about this issue, becoming, in July 2011, the world’s leading tourist destination in terms of the number of hotels certified to follow the Code of Conduct, an international initiative that protects children and adolescents from sexual exploitation.

Cartagena culture and eco-tourism

Of course, Cartagena has much more to offer than sex. The city’s beautiful colonial walled city and historic fortresses, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, have long been a draw for tourists interested in history and architecture, while the shiny new skyscrapers along the beachfront increasingly offer all the style and pizzazz of a major modern beach resort. Cartagena was even listed by the British travel magazine Wanderlust as the number-seven top city to visit in 2012. Colombia Reports proudly put this in terms of beating out Berlin and Venice as desirable travel destinations.

Cartagena is also gaining ground with its eco-tourism credentials. Among the criteria for this are the fact that the city can easily be explored on foot or by taxi; the cuisine that features seafood and fresh produce are local; many of the city’s aged buildings, rather than being knocked down to make way for something new, have been lovingly restored and now serve as atmospheric boutique hostels and other alternative, small-scale accommodations; and nearby nature activities include beaches, scuba diving, and an oceanarium.

Challenges for tourism

However, violent crime is still a big problem, with Colombia being ranked as the fifth most dangerous nation, by rate of violent deaths per capita, in the world. This statistic came out as recently October 2011, with the report by the Geneva Declaration revealing that crime, rather than war, is the greatest cause of violent death. Colombia is also an “active conflict zone,” a point emphasized by the four small bombs that exploded just a few hours after President Obama had arrived for the summit, two in Cartagena and two near the US Embassy in Bogota.

The Colombian government has pledged to invest US$240 billion in tourism infrastructure by 2014, and aggressive advertising campaigns continue to draw travelers’ attention to the changing face of Colombia. Cartagena de Indias, a city filled with history, ambiance, culture, vibrancy, and natural beauty is at the forefront of this effort.

[Image of old fort in Cartagena, Colombia via Wikipedia]

Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at Truthout.org, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking.
email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler