Closing the country’s borders and airports may seem like the easiest way to stop a pandemic. Unfortunately, a virus does not ask for a visa or permission to enter the country. Having closed the borders is an understatement.
Most of Colombia’s more than 6,300 kilometers of land border are green and crossed by hundreds of trails. A few weeks ago I traveled with Haitian and African migrants overland from Ecuador to Panama. I witnessed and verified the precariousness of immigration controls at the borders.
Closing a border can reassure the population but it will not stop a virus that is already in Colombia. For this you need controls and more controls and – if these do not work – a mandatory quarantine, like the one that begins this Tuesday. Everyone knows what these measures mean for the economy of a country that is highly dependent on tourism. In 2019 more than 4.5 million tourists visited the country, that is, on average more than 12 thousand per day.
Thousands of these tourists from around the world are now stranded in Colombia. Some describe in Facebook groups how they were kicked out of their hostels and that now they cannot find accommodation because they are “gringos.” Many more say that Colombians already look at them with suspicion and that they are afraid of them. Few others mentioned that they were intercepted by police officers. who wanted to charge them more than a million pesos for not wearing face masks.
The first to take advantage of this situation were the airlines. Prices for air tickets from Bogotá to Munich multiplied. They charged up to 18 million pesos for a flight – obviously one way – that normally does not cost two million. It is such a blatant use that one understands that many tourists do not want to return to Colombia. The old slogan of the Ministry of Tourism that “the only risk is that you want to stay” now reads as “the only risk is that they do not want to let you go”. The welcome with which Colombians until recently received visitors from all over the world should not be silent in times of crisis.
I do not want to generalize, there are still many Colombians who do not allow themselves to be overcome by fear and who continue to help tourists. But you feel a change in perception. A few months ago tourists were more than welcome to the country to know its wonders and, of course, leave dollars and euros. Now it seems that for some they are pariahs and that many people take advantage of their situation. But how we treat them in the crisis depends on their return. Something that should matter to us not only because of the country’s image but also because tourism is the “engine” of the national economy, on which 1.9 million Colombians depend.
Fake news from travelers who allegedly broke the quarantine are now flooding social media. Tourists seem to become targets of fear-driven xenophobia before COVID-19, an attitude that is a disgrace to a multi-ethnic country.
Many foreigners and tourists now do not have the opportunity to return to their country and be reunited with their families who are also facing this global challenge. Colombians with their understanding of family are the best able to understand how serious it is now to be away from their loved ones.
It is the first time in our globalized life that the bridges to the world have been cut. We must be in solidarity with tourists as with vulnerable populations and not close their doors to them , because they and nobody are to blame that Colombia and the world confront COVID-19. We must be careful to look for easy culprits because discrimination and xenophobia are a worse virus than any pandemic.