Colombia’s Pacific coast is best known for the violence it endured during the country’s extended armed conflict. But a group of Afro-Colombian women are leading an initiative to reframe that story, attracting tourists to the area’s cultural and natural riches. The coast is home to beautiful beaches and vast networks of rivers, lush rainforests full of wildlife, and diverse local cultures whose vibrant festivals and energetic chirimia music enchant visitors. The regional development plans that emerged out of the peace agreement have opened a space for these women to reimagine their area.
Our grantee partner Asociación Vamos Mujeres de San Francisco de Ichó (Vamos Mujeres) is working with the local community council to lead a community-based tourism initiative that will simultaneously generate income and protect the environment. By pulling together, they plan to raise the economy of the entire town of San Francisco de Ichó and neighboring communities, creating jobs for river guides, cooks, waiters, shuttle operators, guesthouse owners, and cleaners. They’re also providing economic incentives for everyone to care for the woods and rivers around them.
Making a Community Tourism Plan that Benefits More People
Vamos Mujeres launched its IAF grant in late 2019, right before the COVID-19 pandemic halted international travel and made it difficult to gather as a community to advance the project. Even so, during its first year, the organization has managed to use a community-wide participatory process to create a plan for community tourism development, including constructing a visitor service center and proposing regulations for restaurants and lodging. Vamos Mujeres is also seeking to engage surrounding indigenous Embera-Wounaan and mestizo communities in its tourism development plan.
Vamos Mujeres assessed the current state of tourism in Ichó: how many families were involved, how much income they were generating, and what services they were offering. This community snapshot revealed that many families in Ichó have experience providing these services but have yet to capitalize on their potential by coordinating. It also highlighted for community members the wealth of cultural and natural resources they have to share, such as diverse jungle plants and birds, waves for surfing and whale watching, and delicious coastal dishes bursting with the flavors of coconut and fresh fish. As Vamos Mujeres representative Ms. Benilda said, “We learned to see what we had in the community. We didn’t know what we had, or if we knew it, we acted like it didn’t exist. [During this process], we realized that we are rich.”
Thanks to the knowledge and wisdom of elderly community members, the community learned more about their territory. Lucía, a community council and Vamos Mujeres member, recalls, “We made a map of the river. We’re people from the community and we did not know where the river begins and all of its points. From there, we learned more about our community. We also learned to appreciate important points in the community, such as the cemeteries and the meeting house. That allowed us to love what we have and take ownership of those spaces.”
During the current health crisis, they’ve prioritized plans to welcome the local travelers they’ve historically received. The Ichó community would like to transition to sustainable agritourism and nature tourism, and in the near future, would like to attract national and international visitors. With training from Travolution, an organization specializing in community tourism, they’ve already identified differentiated services and experiences to offer.
Making Ichó Better for Tourists… and Residents
Vamos Mujeres is not just waiting for tourists to return. It has trained almost 200 people in community tourism practices and customer service to provide quality experiences to tourists and generate more income for their families. Its members taught food handling techniques to all women in the community who offer food to tourists. They also plan to train guides in first-aid and safety practices, tourism offerings, and rules and regulations.
One of Vamos Mujeres’ most significant activities so far has been understanding environmental issues facing the community, which are also affecting residents’ own health over the long term. Vamos Mujeres and other community members are taking steps to improve environmental conditions in Ichó, both to attract tourists and to improve their own quality of life. They have begun educating local tourists about sustainable tourism and good practices in managing solid waste and caring for the environment.
In response to COVID-19, Vamos Mujeres has invested part of its IAF funding in improving local communications infrastructure by installing a cellular signal booster so that participants could maintain contact and continue to work virtually. The entire town now enjoys better cell phone connectivity: “We never thought we could have good signal here in Ichó,” marvels community council and Vamos Mujeres member Carlos. “That has been a success and very important for the community and for neighboring communities [as we grow the local tourism industry and look to attract visitors]. The tourists no longer have problems communicating.” The adaptations they’ve made during the crisis have the unexpected benefit of preparing them to better accommodate visitors.
Ichó residents have set aside land to build a visitor service center that will embody the community’s dream and concretely mark their coordination to make tourism a viable income opportunity for more community members. While they look forward to the near future when visitors will return, these Afro-Colombian women are dreaming big and gaining a new appreciation of everything they have to offer.