Peacebuilding and Tourism in Colombia

Getting a Taste of How Change is Happening

After decades of armed conflict in Colombia, mutual interest and understanding support the transition to peace. For local people it is very important to know that the outside world is paying attention. By facilitating encounters between tourists and former guerillas, the peace building organisation Rodeemos el Diálogo (ReD) encourages international solidarity.

We are in Icononzo, a rural municipality in the Colombian province of Tolima. It is located in one of 26 reincorporation zones created by the peace deal signed in 2016 between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army). The peace deal seeks to end half a century of internal armed conflict. The reincorporation zones are where ex-combatants are transitioning to civilian life.

First-Hand Experiences of the Challenges for Peace

The road trip from Bogotá to Icononzo took roughly three hours, through amazing green mountains and forest. A former FARC-EP combatant receives us with a smile. Over lunch, prepared by members of their food cooperative, four ex-combatants exchange questions with the visitors we brought from the US and the UK. “Why did you choose to join the FARC?”, a women from New York asks a former combatant. His reply: “I was born in the rural area of Guaviare. Growing up I didn’t have enough clean water, roads or access to education, so I decided to fight for it”.

The ex-combatants show us around. They present their economic projects and their prefabricated housing in which they were supposed to live for a few months. A year later, they are still living here. Many ex-combatants have brought their families, from whom they had been separated by the war.

Rebuilding livelihoods

Members of the new FARC party (Revolutionary Alternative Force of the Commons, the new political incarnation of the FARC guerilla) practise peace by refusing to think and act individualistically. They have set up four cooperatives, aiming to benefit all members equally: a food co-op, which manages the restaurant and a small grocery shop; an agriculture co-op, producing avocado and other crops; a textiles co-op, producing clothing both for their own use and to sell; and a tourism co-op which is drafting plans for short stays in a hotel run by them and built with local materials.

Our visit with the group to Icononzo is part of a joint venture we set up between Embrace Dialogue (Rodeemos el Diálogo - ReD), a transnational peace building organisation, and Justice Travel, a social impact travel agency. Together we developed the travel programme to create awareness among international visitors to Colombia and help consolidate community projects in reincorporation zones.

Working for Reconciliation

Rodeemos el Diálogo was created in London in 2012 when the Santos-FARC peace talks began. Ever since, ReD has supported the peace process from both Colombia and the UK. However, due to the FARC’s clandestine nature, most Colombians had never met any FARC fighters. Since FARC demobilised, several members have been guests at our “Peace Breakfasts”, intimate dialogues around peace between Colombians of all walks of life held in a restaurant in Bogotá.

Solidarity on the Bumpy Road to Peace

The Colombian peace process is a long and bumpy road. Since the election of Ivan Duque in 2018, many people fear the dismantling of the peacemaking efforts initiated by the previous administration. The international community has played a key role in the peace process and the implementation of the peace deal. The presence of the UN Mission to Colombia has contributed to avoid the reincorporation process derailing.

In this scenario, transnational solidarity is a fundamental support to peace building. Tourism can play a key role. As Juan José Orjuela, Justice Travel Representative for Colombia, puts it: “Tourism is giving, but also receiving. During encounters with tourists, former combatants get to tell their stories. Tourists visiting reincorporation zones thus can become aware of the challenges for reconciliation and go back to their countries willing to help.” Having built ties, they can, for example, set up solidarity campaigns in their countries to pressure the new Colombian government to continue with the peace process.

Towards A Different Future

Millions more people are visiting Colombia now than ever before. This is great news, not only because it can help economic growth, but also because the world can witness a society trying to transition from war to peace. Yet the question that remains is how to handle this ethically? ReD and Justice Travel believe that communities must be at the centre of tourism. We chose Icononzo because we have a long-lasting relationship with communities in the reincorporation zone. We are aware that there is a danger of tourists exoticising former combatants. To avoid this, we explain to our visitors the history and current situation in Colombia.

Our visit to Icononzo was a life-changing experience for everyone involved. We saw the enthusiasm in the FARC members’ eyes when attentive ears listened to their stories, and the solidarity that grew on the side of the tourists who want to stay connected with the developments in the reincorporation zone. This kind of sensitive tourism can support peace building and enable new bonds of lasting solidarity to be created. It can transform the very concept of tourism from a mode of travel based on taking to one based on giving: a practice for building a better world.

Andrei Gomez-Suarez is a co-founder of ReD (Rodeemos el Diálogo) and a consultant on conflict, peace and security. Gwen Burnyeat is a member of ReD and a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University College London (UCL). Lucia Mesa is a member of ReD and an MA student on Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy at the Goldsmiths College, University of London.