Natalia Naranjo

"What communities need is a good quality of life and usually, this involves small projects with small impacts on the environment, compared to resorts, mass projects and huge initiatives"

Natalia Naranjo is a Tourism and Development Expert. She is the Country Representative in Colombia and Ecuador for the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), and an official trainer for the same organization. She is also the Country Representative in Colombia for the Canadian Organization for Technical Cooperation – Canadian Executive Service Organization (CESO-SACO). Ms Naranjo is a leading force at COMUNITUR, a community tourism development network while she also teaches Tourism Public Policy and International Analysis at the Externado de Colombia University. She has worked in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Spain with the private and public sector as well as with local communities and NGOs. Ms Naranjo holds a BSc in Finance and International Relations from the Externado de Colombia University, and a Masters in Environment from the University of Barcelona. You have extensive experience working in both the public and private sectors in many Latin American countries, and you also teach tourism public policy at University level. Do you believe governments now finally get the importance of tourism, and particularly sustainable tourism, in relation to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or do they still approach the sector as an easy source of revenue and just go through the moves of sustainable tourism, to greenwash and appear to be up to date?

Natalia Naranjo: My answer is that it could be both. There is a growing number of people finally understanding the importance of sustainability in the administration and other stakeholders. Social networks and globalisation are strengthening the sustainability discourse in all economic activities including tourism. When it comes to implementing policies and tools to achieve sustainability in Tourism, there are the unprepared who only do it to fulfil some obligations or some requirements from the government for example, without really considering the consequences or the serious commitment that it requires. But I think that growing concern and the market can be great allies to prevent greenwashing. For that, we also need more information and to facilitate access to information. Some stakeholders at first only want to accomplish some criteria without really meaning it, but even this is a good start. Anyway, there is more information for everyone, and that’s good. Are you satisfied with the policies of the current Colombia government and their understanding of sustainable tourism? What would be any key recommendations you would make to them if asked?

Natalia Naranjo: Well, I think they are implementing different regulations, and from this year all the stakeholders have to be certified/have to accomplish some criteria in sustainability if they want to renew their functioning accreditation then I think that’s good that there are some standards. Anyway not everyone knows about sustainability, and sometimes there is misunderstanding, and there will probably be people that will only complete forms to accomplish that criteria and the government need more follow up with that. It is a challenge now they have been doing these policies and these regulations, and there is a little bit of concern among stakeholders if they can meet all those regulations that the government is trying to implement. We are now facing a big challenge to understand Sustainability and really implement these strategies and criteria. It is a good moment, but we need to keep working to understand even at the government level. Colombia is finally experiencing peace after a protracted, deadly civil conflict, neighbouring Ecuador is experiencing minor political turbulence, while Venezuela is in full turmoil. Can sustainable tourism in your view play a vital role in healing and reconciliation within and between countries in the region or are these preconditions for sustainable tourism?

Natalia Naranjo: Well, in Colombia we have had tourism even during the conflict. That is not the ideal, but it’s possible. Tourism is always a tool for understanding, to foster economies and integrate culture and promote identity. Each country has different problems, but we are so close to each other and with family ties in every country that it is probable that tourism can survive despite the conflict. In your experience, can tourism in Colombia create enough quality jobs and fast enough so that all those formerly armed youngsters can lead a peaceful, constructive life? What could be done to speed-up the job-creating abilities of tourism?

Natalia Naranjo: I think it is important to understand that every person and every place is different, and there could be people that could embrace tourism as an alternative, to work towards local development and to include former guerrillas and others who were in the conflict but you have to see this in each place, if they want to do it through tourism or other alternatives. I think Tourism is a possible way to improve the quality of life and to restore a social, local network and the local economy but like any other economic activity, it will take time to consolidate and to bring local opportunities. But there are other options as well such as cocoa farming or other crops easy to implement. Sometimes people prefer these as they see results more quickly than in Tourism. In Tourism you need motivation, you need a service attitude and to understand the effects of seasonality. Not everyone is suitable for Tourism, but I think it is a possible tool depending on each place. There was a recent article in The Conversation according to which since 2016 and the peace agreement when the FARC guerrillas left the forest, 88 new species have been discovered yet, on the other hand, the deforestation rate increased by 44%. At the same time, Colombia is considering the extraction of shale oil. Is there a risk that the old conflict will be transformed into an environmental one between communities and oil, gas, forestry and other developers?

Natalia Naranjo: Yes, that is a possibility, in the places controlled by the guerrillas there were no institutions, and now illegal activities are taking advantage. It is crucial to strengthen our institutions in these rural areas to stop illegal activities. The government is trying to promote sustainable tourism and is proud of biodiversity, but we also need to support conservation more. We need more budget for national parks. The government is cutting the budget for innovation and conservation research whereas we need the opposite, to raise the budget, this is one of the things we have to face in the coming year.

Tierradentro. Colombian Mountains, fieldworkTierradentro. Colombian Mountains, fieldwork Since these budgets are being cut, and based on your studies in Finance & International Relations as well as on your extensive professional experience with CESO-SACO and COMUNITUR what are the alternatives? Are there appropriate and inappropriate sources of finance when it comes to supporting community tourism? For example, would it be acceptable for a community to accept funding from companies in sectors with poor environmental and social records such as Mining/Oil extraction? Or is it the most practical choice in an Oil-producing region?

Natalia Naranjo: Well I think this is up to the communities. It is very difficult to judge the communities when you do not know exactly what they have experienced, so it could be different possibilities according to where they live and what opportunities they have. Each fund has its limitations, then, at the conjuncture, every community has to analyse the pros and cons, sometimes that is the only possibility. Some communities were living with the guerillas, others with the paramilitaries and some other were living beside oil companies, this is the reality that they faced. So if a community accepts funding from an oil extraction company to develop some handicrafts or agriculture projects, because it happens, it is not a good thing to judge them. Sometimes there are funds from international cooperation organisations and other times from an oil company. It is a conversation, a negotiation in each community. We could support their decision, we could try to find alternative resources, but every resource has its own guidelines and limitations. Some people do not want to receive money at all, it is difficult to judge them either. Since you are saying that it is up to the community to decide, what is the way a typical community decides on these matters? For example, does anyone ask the community if it wants tourism in the first place, does it participate in the design of the project or of the training curriculum?

Natalia Naranjo: For any project or initiative the key to its success is whether it is was the decision of the community to undertake it. In addition, if they do it only because it was the only possibility and they do not believe in it, it is not going to be a success. People do not usually choose tourism because it is not easy to produce revenue instantly compared to other activities such as crops. They need motivation, time to develop what they want to develop. There is a basic curriculum, but they have to decide which tools they need to strengthen an ability. If the decision is theirs, the process is going to be easy. Once they decide tourism is a good option they are willing to learn and engage. Their culture and way of life must be respected in every way. Quality standards sometimes are difficult to achieve because the standardisation process sometimes contradicts the local way of doing things. You have great experience working with communities as a leader at COMUNITUR. Please explain what sets this network aside from other community tourism initiatives, and what are its key projects and future aims.

Natalia Naranjo: COMUNITUR is a network, we work with different initiatives and professionals. We work as an interdisciplinary team, we have professionals with various backgrounds and a collaborative approach, and there are also touristic initiatives that we try to promote and help with our knowledge. We have two key destinations, Urabá and Pijao. Urabá Project, where some of us started working ten years ago, began with the paramilitaries demobilisation in 2005. There was a process of reconciliation in the communities, and they started working together in tourism, handicrafts, fisheries and cocoa farms. We still work with them in promotion; to strengthen their knowledge we are organising some events to bring them in touch with other initiatives and exchange views and experiences on local development. Another project is in Pijao, Quindio, the coffee growing region in Colombia. We work there with a foundation and a local network. Pijao is the first Cittaslow town (‘Slow city’) in Latin America. We have been working with them two years now providing advice on waste management, energy and local agriculture. They decide which needs need supporting and then we cooperate with CESO-SACO to meet these requirements. This year we are holding an event called ‘Flavours, Sound & Knowledge’ in Pijao (17-19 September 2017 ), following a festival in Urabá last year. We want to offer promotion and visibility through these events, to exchange knowledge about Tourism Sustainability and to support local cultural activities. So, the project with the paramilitaries and their reintroduction has gone well in your view?

Natalia Naranjo: Yes, actually there were four different initiatives from which we can learn. There is one that is a leader, and we are working with them: El Carlos Ecotouristic and Archaeological Center. The key success factors included that they were a tightly-knit group of people working together for the community and that the town was accessible by land. They enjoyed the support of the local government for various projects and received funding from different ministers and institutions. All these encourage them to keep working in Tourism. Which project would you name as the most successful or authentic community tourism project you have worked with or encountered and what were its key elements?

Natalia Naranjo: Well, I think the El Carlos, Urabá project. El Carlos is the name of the village and of the ecotouristic centre. It is the most fulfilling experience I have experienced. I have lived there for three years, and I tried to understand their dynamic and what they really needed to develop tourism. It has been going on for over 15 years, and they are successful even if they are not receiving a lot of money. Sometimes it is an issue for them; sometimes they do not have the number of people that they need. They still keep working to integrate into the value chain; they keep learning about marketing and promotion, administration and commercialisation because for them it has been very difficult these areas. Still, I think that all the projects that they have set up are successful, they are aware of Sustainability, about what is important for them, how to strengthen their identity and culture and to work as a group. And they are thrilled with the project; they enjoy to work together and learn. As a tourism destination did El Carlos initially have some unique selling points?

Natalia Naranjo: It is a rural community, a rural environment and they have an archaeological centre. The people go there for the traditional accommodation, to eat local food, to talk with them, to know the reconciliation process. It is a very interesting project because, after the demobilisation of the paramilitaries, they have integrated some families that were involved in the conflict or in drug trafficking too. This integration process into legal activities has been very important for them as a community; they are now very proud of what they are doing. Another beautiful thing is that women for example, in these rural communities do not usually feel comfortable participating or discussing but now the tourism leaders are mainly women, they have changed a lot in 10 years in a good way. All the processes we have been doing through tourism and this type of tourism in a cooperative way is giving them self-esteem. Sometimes people in the rural areas of Colombia and other countries lack self-esteem as they are shut out from the decision-process of all these organisational models. Through this type of processes and experiences, local people are gaining self-esteem, and this is very important because they can now talk about what they want and need. Do the village have a website where one can book to visit as an independent tourist?

Natalia Naranjo: We are working with them through COMUNITUR ( One of their problems is that they do not have good Internet access. We try to facilitate. You can write us, and we relay information to them. At least they now have smartphones and Whatsapp which helps. You mentioned CESO-SACO, a Canadian charity which you represent in Colombia. They seem to have an interesting operational model with volunteers. How does it work in Colombia?

Natalia Naranjo: Yes, it is a very interesting model! CESO-SACO works with volunteer experts, retired and semi-retired experts. They have been around for 50 years with great results. They are at an age and with a motivation to help and with all this great experience from all around the world. I have been working with them two years now, all the experience we have here in Colombia has been a success. The volunteer experts come for short assignments 2-4 weeks maximum. People wonder if in this short time they can really do something and the answer is yes. We do not work with new organisations because new organisations cannot depend on this kind of assignment but we keep working with established organisations that need a little bit of technical support –small, medium, public, foundations..-. Before arrival, we hold Skype meetings and send them information so that they arrive prepared. They are not consultants; the volunteer rather works as a coach transferring knowledge to help the organisation develop whatever they need. The experience is very positive. I think I have not worked with young people – it has to be different – but this kind of assignment with senior experts is really interesting as they come from various environments and countries, they are very flexible, they understand the cultural differences, they do their best and the organisations are very happy with the assignments. No opportunities for young graduates then?

Natalia Naranjo: No, CESO-SACO only works with senior experts, primarily Canadians. There are of course other organisations that work with graduates. You are also involved with GSTC as the country representative for both Colombia and Ecuador. Is the tourism sector in both countries positively predisposed towards sustainable tourism certification or are they cautious, or indifferent even?

Natalia Naranjo: Well, we are talking more about certification. In Colombia, they are undertaking a good certification effort this year so that sustainability is integrated into the process of tourism business license renewal and to use national funds to certify tourism businesses against the national sustainability standards. So far this year over 500 stakeholders have been certified in Colombia this year, also thanks to the fact that grants cover the cost of certification for the first year. The challenge now is if this trend will continue once stakeholders have to do it with their own funds and then we will see if this process involves serious commitment. Ecuador is more experienced with this process. In Colombia, we are only now trying to start international tourism and to understand the dynamics in general. Ecuador is more aware, they have a local certification program, Smart Voyager, which works within the framework of Rainforest Alliance. Ecuador has already integrated the GSTC criteria in their national standards, and they are trying to work with us in this certification processes and awareness. I think that the process in Ecuador is more accurate, they were going slowly about it, and they have more experience, while Colombia has been going very fast and there is a lot of misunderstanding. So this is a challenge for us, we shall see if Colombian tourism businesses have understood what sustainability processes they need to integrate into their services. I hope there will be a true commitment and not a greenwashing process through this; because this could be awful for the trustfulness of the process and for sustainability itself. So are these grants in Colombia offered just to hotels, tour operators or to destinations as well?

Natalia Naranjo: There were some destinations, but the grants are mainly offered to tour operators, agencies, hotels and restaurants. There is a program for some destinations at a national level, including Pijao. Have the GSTC standards been integrated into the Colombian national standards?

Natalia Naranjo: No, but we are working towards recognition of these standards. Do the two sets of standards differ significantly?

Natalia Naranjo: Colombian standards are more detailed, the include exact instructions of what stakeholders need to do. You could describe them as more difficult. How important is the GSTC Sustainable Tourism Conference in Chile (6-9 September 2017) for your work and what initiatives would you like it to spearhead?

Natalia Naranjo: Yes, it is always very important to have these exchanges to see what is happening with other stakeholders and initiatives all around the world, we are very proud to have again a conference in Latin America and it is very important for all our work in sustainable tourism as it helps us raise awareness about tourism sustainability. This is voluntary work, and it is a topic that we want to support. In Ecuador and Colombia, I try to promote the importance of Community-Based Tourism in particular, because environmental issues are being more easily understood and integrated into policies than social issues. CBT is all about how the communities can get involved in the value chain of the tourism sector in a sustainable and responsible way. In mainstream tourism, communities are usually involved by providing cleaning services, and other low paid employment. The key issue is to raise awareness, to engage the community as key actors in local development. Is CBT also about ownership and management by the community as individuals and collectively as village cooperatives?

Natalia Naranjo: Yes, exactly. Finally, a question about ‘Degrowth’, a term frequently discussed in green circles but not yet in sustainable tourism circles. Based on your experience with CBT would you agree that Ecotourism and CBT are forms of Degrowth, by preventing excessive growth in some destinations and as such Degrowth needs to become a more familiar concept in Sustainable Tourism?

Natalia Naranjo: Yes, of course, if we are trying to become sustainable I think it is contradictory to keep working towards growing, more production, more resources, this can not be sustained. I am in favour of the Degrowth concept. When growth has this impact on environment and culture, Climate Change and deforestation, it is contradictory to keep saying that we need to keep growing more. We need more than mitigation strategies; we need regeneration in some ecosystems. Community-Based Tourism development could be an alternative because what communities need is a good quality of life and usually this involves small projects with small impacts on the environment, compared to resorts, mass projects and huge initiatives. I think CBT and rural projects always have more positive impacts than negative. The term Degrowth is not common, but it is becoming more popular. Thank you very much for your valuable insight. We wish you success in all your sustainable & degrowth projects!