A Plan to Capitalize on Their Slice of Paradise


Small fishing boats anchor in clear blue waters off the sandy beach. Fishermen huddle around huge yellow nylon nets, searching for holes. Music blares from thatched-hut restaurants that line the shore.

It's the end of another lazy day in Taganga, a village nestled in brown foothills along the Caribbean coast of Colombia. For those who like their tourism unvarnished, it's a paradise, a Puerto Vallarta of 50 years ago.

But that's not enough for the area's biggest landowners and politicians, who want to turn Taganga and a neighboring park into a glitzy tourist getaway.

Taganga lies next to Tayrona National Park, one of Colombia's most popular natural attractions, a 37,000-acre reserve that borders the Caribbean Sea and sits at the foot of the world's highest coastal mountain range, the snow-covered Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Like many natural reserves in Latin America, most of the land lies in the hands of private landowners, who were never compensated for their property when the area was designated a national park more than three decades ago.

For years, those property owners have tried to pass measures to force the government to allow construction of hotels and beach-side condominiums, even an international shipping terminal.

The argument has taken on new force in Colombia's ravaged economy, in which unemployment is slightly less than 20%. A port or hotels would bring jobs and money to thousands of people living in nearby cities.

So far, the park's ecotourism potential hasn't delivered. Colombians seem to prefer luxury hotels and fancy restaurants. And international tourists have largely been frightened away by the country's endemic violence.

"People can't eat landscapes. If mankind wants to conserve this park, it should pay us," said Joaquin Vives, who represents the area in Colombia's Congress.

Environmentalists are horrified at the prospect of turning Tayrona into a tourist mecca. The park contains nine ecosystems harboring 300 species of birds and 100 species of mammals, including anteaters and howler monkeys.

It also features archeological sites belonging to the mysterious Tayrona, an indigenous culture that left behind the so-called Lost City, a series of terraced platforms in the Sierra Nevada.

None of that has dissuaded landowners from repeatedly trying to pave parts of the park. In the 1970s, some tried to secure approval for the construction of 40 luxury hotels. In the 1990s, another group of landowners pushed for the construction of a coal port.

The most recent bid to develop the park failed this year after it was discovered that some of those backing the proposition were large landowners tied to narco-trafficking. The placid bays and easy access to the Caribbean have long made the park a favorite launching spot for marijuana and cocaine smugglers.

Environmentalists worry about the future of the park. Although Colombia's Constitution protects the national park from full-scale development, the pressure on the government from landowners and local politicians is intense.

"The private property owners are intent on urbanizing the park," said Manuel Rodriguez, a former environment minister who has played a key role over the years in trying to prevent development of the area. "At the very bottom of their complaints is that they want to make themselves rich."

That's exactly what happened to property owners in the nearby town of El Rodadero, which lies 30 minutes south of Taganga. There, casinos, shopping malls and towering beachfront hotels have brought in tons of tourists from around Colombia but left the area devoid of natural charm.

Taganga's offering is much more simple. The village stretches along a calm bay lined with small stores, houses and two hotels. Restaurants have one menu: catch of the day. Owners are likely to take diners to the back of the restaurants to choose their fish.

Typical tourist amenities are slim. There are a handful of dive shops operated by Europeans. Visitors can rent a guide and motorboat for $30 a day to go to nearby uninhabited beaches or reefs teeming with fish and coral. Beyond that, there's just sunshine and blue water.

Ecotourism just hasn't been that profitable, especially in the middle of a violent internal conflict. Ironically, Taganga has escaped much of the violence of the war. The area has for years been a stronghold of paramilitary fighters, who have kept the country's leftist guerrillas at a distance.

Robert Pelissier, a 31-year-old dive instructor from France, has lived in Taganga for seven years. During that time, plenty of Europeans have visited, he says. But he's taught only two Americans.

"They're scared away by the violence," Pelissier said. "But this area is very well protected."

In an effort to balance the demands of the landowners and those of the environmentalists, the government has launched a private study to determine the best use of the park, conducted by a consultant with the environmental group World Conservation Union.

The consultant will consider several possibilities, including developing hotels that will fit into the environment, said Gustavo Adolfo Toro, head of Colombia's tourism board.

Results from the study will not be binding. But they will guide the government in deciding Tayrona's future.

"We're working to improve the competitiveness of the area as a tourist area, to improve the infrastructure, the comfort," Toro said. "But it will never be another Puerto Vallarta."

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