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  HOME | Colombia (Click here for more)

Iota Deals Another Blow to Colombian Archipelago’s Tourism amid Pandemic

SAN ANDRES, Colombia – A week after the devastating passage of Hurricane Iota, the residents of Colombia’s San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina archipelago are trying to restructure their lives and hope that tourism, the engine of their local economy, helps get things back on track.

Iota deals a severe blow to the plans to reopen the traditional tourist sites in the set of islands, including Morgan’s Cave, which has been closed since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic and was seriously affected by the storm, along with other natural tourist attractions in the area.

“At Morgan’s Cave, almost 70 percent was affected (by the storm) … the greater part of our infrastructure and especially the nature (here). Trees that I’ve seen growing for 50 years, the great majority of them are gone,” the administrator of the historic site, Jimmy Gordon, told EFE.

A legend more than 300 years old is that Morgan’s Cave got its name from the English pirate Henry Morgan, who in 1668 took refuge on San Andres in a hurricane and hid his treasure in a grotto that, so they say, remains undiscovered to this day.

More than 1,500 trees on the property spanning 30 hectares (about 75 acres) were torn up by the Category 5 storm that on the morning of Nov. 16 blasted the neighboring island of Providencia and caused serious damage on San Andres and Santa Catalina.

On its passage, Iota ripped out the extensive vegetation that surrounded Morgan’s Cave, tore roofs off of homes and caused other damage to the islands’ infrastructure.

“The impact that this has had on tourism has been overwhelming. San Andres is adrift tourism-wise and we have not had many visitors since March 17 (due to the pandemic). We’ve come around to have a few people since September,” said Gordon, who is also a historian.

The hurricane also affected the West View ecopark, a natural pool attractive for its coral reefs and multicolored fish; the blowing hole, a hole in the beach that is a fascinating destination for thousands of tourists when it shoots forth jets of seawater due to the strength of the wave action on the beach; and the Johnny Cay park, an islet that is symbolic for the archipelago’s Raizal culture, a Caribbean native group.

Gordon said that to be able to profitably reopen these tourist spots it’s not enough to repair the damage left by Iota but also some 2,000 or 3,000 tourists must come each day to San Andres, located about 700 kilometers (435 miles) off the Colombian coast, and that figure is a far cry from what is possible right now, given that only 200-300 people had been coming before the storm.

“The number of people who are coming is not enough. Here (at Morgan’s Cave) we’re employing about 25 people, the majority of them mothers who are the heads of households, and we were getting by until the storm hit,” Gordon said, adding that the emergency sent the crisis that was already present due to the COVID-19 pandemic completely out of control.

The environmental impact of the storm also directly affected tourism and set back the marine recovery work that for years had been carried out in the region by environmental organizations and foundations.

“We’ve had days of clean-up with positive results of 20 tons (of collected trash) in which you find 750 tires. We’ve been doing that for five years and these two (storms) have brought us another load of trash,” the coordinator of the Help 2 Oceans non-governmental organization, Jorge Sanchez, told EFE.

From the western coast of San Andres, the sector of the island that was hit hardest by the story, Sanchez – an experienced and award-winning diver, said that both Iota and Hurricane Eta, which came a few days earlier, caused a “real disaster” with “enormous” environmental damage.

He emphasized that one of the big tourist attractions in the archipelago is that you can dive from the seashore, an activity that cannot now be undertaken in many areas until the ecosystems damaged by the hurricane are rehabilitated.

To do that, it will be necessary to launch two plans to remove the residue that remains on the surface of the sea and on the ocean bed and foster the restoration of the species affected by the storm.

Before the coronavirus restrictions entered into effect, Morgan’s Cave each day received between 200 and 300 visitors, a number that could rise to 800-900 during the high season.

Now, Gordon sees only a scenario of a long, slow recovery, despite the fact that the tourist sector is working all out to try and get back on its feet.

The last tourist came to the island two months ago when Gordon allowed a 10-year-old boy who, after being unable to visit the Disney parks in Florida, asked his parents to take him to the pirate’s cave.

“Since I’ve been in charge of this site, we’ve been selling the Raizal culture and we’ve been tremendously affected. For eight months, we’ve not had a single group of visitors, not sold a single ticket. We’ve been stymied with the workers,” he said.

A week ago, Gordon and his team invested almost 10 hours a day to finish cutting up and clearing away the trees downed by Iota.

“I don’t see us turning the corner ... for things to get better for the island because the pandemic and the two hurricanes fused – Eta and Iota – and they hit the southwest part of the island very hard, wiping out all the businesses that were on the beach and that beautiful endemic vegetation of San Andres,” he said.

He also said that although the restoration of the three islands may be done with money provided by the government in Bogota, the work must be carried out by the islanders so that “the post-colonial architecture is not lost.”

“There are a lot of people who are in need and need a hand from the government. We need the support of the national tourism that massively came to San Andres, for them not to forget us and remember that the sea of seven colors still exists here and (also) the friendliness and generosity of our people in taking care of them,” he said.


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