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Colombia aims for post-pandemic tourism market



It may be a while before crowds of foreign visitors return to Colombia’s top tourist attraction, the beautiful walled city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast.

In normal circumstances, thousands descend from cruise ships and international flights to wander its narrow streets, relax in its boutique hotels and gaze at its graceful, colonial-era architecture and balconies draped with bougainvillea.

But coronavirus is likely to diminish city tourism, at least until a vaccine is developed. Travel industry experts say that, in a world grappling with Covid-19, tourists will visit quieter, less urban and more sustainable destinations that allow them to take off their masks, explore backwaters and forget about the pandemic – at least for a couple of weeks.

Colombia is well-equipped to provide such tourism and as it emerges from lockdown, it wants to encourage it. 

Colombia’s tourism industry was growing before the pandemic

“There will be a big shift in travel trends, and the most obvious change will be that people will want to travel in smaller groups to non-crowded destinations,” says Julían Guerrero, Colombia’s vice-minister for tourism. “We’re really working on positioning Colombia as a sustainable tourism destination in the long term. We don’t want to attract mass-tourism if it’s not sustainable.”

Mr Guerrero points out that Colombia is the size of France, Spain and Portugal combined. But while those countries have a combined population of more than 125m and attract about 180m tourists a year, Colombia is a country of 50m and receives just 4.5m visitors. For travellers tired of the crowds at the Louvre, Colombia’s wide, open spaces could prove relief.

The country is one of the most biodiverse on the planet and with about 2,000 species, it has become a destination for bird-watchers. Its vast tracts of Amazon rainforest are fertile ground for horticulturalists, herpetologists and those who want to escape urban life and experience the jungle.

Colombia’s decades-long civil conflict has helped preserve these wildernesses. For decades, much of the country was off limits to visitors because it was too dangerous. Now, these areas are opening up to tourism and many are unspoilt – a welcome if unintended consequence of war.

Colombia is also establishing a reputation for sports and adventure tourism, fuelled in part by the success of its cyclists. In Boyacá and Cundinamarca – green, mountainous provinces in the heart of the country – companies offer cyclists the opportunity to test their stamina on the roads where Egan Bernal, 2019 Tour de France winner, honed his talent. Further north in Santander province, tourists can paraglide over the Chicamocha canyon, one of the deepest valleys in Latin America.

The little-explored Pacific coast has become a draw for whale-watchers while on the Caribbean coast, dozens of eco-lodges are popping up, offering tourists a low-key alternative to the big hotels.

A humpback whale off the coast of Nuquí
A humpback whale off the coast of Nuquí: eco-tourism is important to the future of Colombia © Perla Sofia/Shutterstock

While most seek to give visitors a chilled-out beach experience, some offer the chance to learn about the indigenous communities of the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains. The Taironaka Archeological Ecolodge, for example, sits next to the remains of a long abandoned indigenous village that was covered in thick undergrowth until just a few years ago.

The lodge has a small museum of artefacts found when the village was unearthed. Visitors can take a bird-watching walk through the forest with a guide from the local Kogui indigenous group. They can even have a “Kogui wedding” at the eco-lodge, presided over by a spiritual leader.

“The ruins are our unique selling point,” says Tatiana Torres, the eco-lodge’s owner. “Obviously we want our visitors to relax but we also hope they’ll learn something while they’re here and contribute to the local community.”

A tourist attends a ceremony with a Kogi mamo (priest) © Kike Calvo/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

With more than 80 indigenous groups speaking a dozen languages, Colombia has potential for this style of community-based tourism. It is also developing “post-conflict tourism” projects, generating jobs for people who just a few years ago were fighting the state in the ranks of leftwing guerrilla groups.

“Many of the regions that were worst affected by the conflict are spectacularly beautiful, and we think we can use tourism to consolidate peace,” says Mr Guerrero, for example by encouraging ex-combatants from the Farc and other groups to work in the industry. “A local person with a pair of binoculars is a tourist guide in the making.”

According to the tourism ministry, several companies, including Impulse Travel, History Travelers and Awake Travel, are operating ecotourism ventures in a responsible way, by involving indigenous communities and ensuring they receive a share of the proceeds. But other, less scrupulous companies are operating too, it adds.

For those who want to invest in Colombia rather than simply visit, the government offers a number of incentives. Anyone opening an eco-lodge, for example, pays tax of 9 per cent compared with a basic corporate tax rate of 32 per cent.

The government has also announced specific measures to help recover from coronavirus. It has cut tax on international air tickets and on jet fuel from 19 per cent to 5 per cent to help cash-strapped airlines. The state has also set up credit lines for the sector, and in some cases, covered part of the wages of employees, allowing companies to keep them on payroll.

El Dorado airport, Bogota: the Colombian government has offered a package of support to stricken airlines © Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images

It is too early to assess whether these measures will work. Beaches and flights opened only in September.

The government has offered a $370m loan to Avianca, the airline, which critics say is a bailout of a company that was already in financial trouble and is effectively owned by foreign shareholders. Other airlines say the government has been over-generous to Avianca and the loan has been challenged in court.

These measures highlight the importance of the industry to the Colombian economy. Tourism accounts for 9 per cent of Colombian jobs and last year generated $6.7bn, making it the country’s biggest generator of foreign exchange outside the mining and oil sectors. President Iván Duque frequently refers to tourism as “the new oil”.

But in the post-Covid world, Colombia wants to do things differently.

“This is not the moment to build a mega-hotel on a beachfront. It’s the time to build a smaller lodge catering to fewer people,” says Laura Durana, director of Acotur, the Colombian association for responsible tourism. “That’s the sort of tourism people will want”.

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Emerging Markets

The hat and the pencil: who is Peru’s president in waiting?




With his huge straw hat and giant yellow pencil, Pedro Castillo has emerged from nowhere to become one of the most recognisable figures in Latin American politics in recent weeks, and appears poised to become Peru’s next president.

But beyond the eye-catching photographs of him ploughing fields in the Andes with oxen, stoking the wood fire in his modest mountain dwelling and riding to his local polling station on horseback, Castillo remains a largely unknown quantity.

He gives few interviews, and has declined to speak to the Financial Times. He has never worked in government and until now was best known for leading a teachers’ strike in 2017.

Pedro Castillo guides a plough pulled by cattle on his property in Chugur © Martin Mejia/AP

And yet, results from this month’s presidential election suggest he has secured an epic victory. With just a handful of disputed votes left to count, he leads his rival Keiko Fujimori by 50,000 votes — 50.1 per cent to 49.9. If her claims of electoral fraud are dismissed and the result is confirmed, he will be sworn in on July 28 as one of the most unlikely leaders in Peru’s rich history.

Much of the confusion surrounding Castillo stems from his flip-flopping on policy during the campaign. One minute he was a radical tub-thumper, determined to nationalise companies and rip up Peru’s 1993 constitution; the next he was trying to assuage the country’s terrified elite they had nothing to fear from him. No one knows what to expect.

On the stump, he knows how to fire up a crowd. His simple message — “no more poor people in a rich country” — resonated with millions of downtrodden voters in impoverished villages in the Andes and Amazon basin.

“He’s one of us,” said Edith Vega as she shopped for food in the town of Chota, close to where Castillo was born. “He knows what our problems are, and they’re not only the problems of Chota — they’re the problems that most Peruvians face.”

In the presidential debates, Castillo was calm and polite but offered little in the way of policy. In his few local media interviews he was sometimes hopelessly out of his depth, particularly when discussing the economy.

Pedro Castillo, right, and rightwing candidate Keiko Fujimori, left, greet before the start of their last debate ahead of the run-off election, in Arequipa © Martin Mejia/AFP via Getty Images

“Pedro Castillo is a disaster when he has to explain his ideas but he’s sensational when he reduces his message to a single phrase: rich against poor, the wealth of those on the coast versus the poverty of those in the Andes, the dispossessed against those who have everything,” said Rodolfo Rojas, a political analyst at Sequoia, a consultancy in Lima.

“He’s a teacher who had a poor education himself and it shows. To give one example, he’s had problems explaining the difference between the national budget and gross domestic product.”

Castillo was born in 1969 in the tiny hamlet of Puña in the northern Andean region of Cajamarca, by some measures the poorest in the country.

“I’m from a neighbouring area and I know something of the hardships there,” said Modesto Montoya, a Peruvian scientist and part of Castillo’s team of advisers. “In my town I knew children like Pedro who walked for hours to get to school. When they came into contact with the cities it made them aware of the injustices and inequality of opportunities that still exist in Peru. That’s what led Pedro to want to change the country.”

The third of nine children, Castillo went to a local school, helped his parents tend their crops, trained as a teacher and married his childhood sweetheart, with whom he has two children. He taught in a rural primary school.

Pedro Castillo waves to supporters after casting his vote on June 6 in his home region © Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images

He became a rondero — the peasant nightwatchmen who, in the absence of the state during the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, formed their own communal protection groups, patrolling the Andes and meting out sometimes brutal justice to those they deemed criminals, including leftist guerrillas from the Maoist Shining Path organisation.

People who know him say that like many mountain villagers he is a social conservative. “It’s deeply ingrained in the Andean culture,” one said, adding that Castillo is unlikely to champion gay rights, women’s liberation or a relaxation of the abortion laws.

His first venture into politics came in 2002 when he stood unsuccessfully for a mayoral post with Perú Posible (Possible Peru), the party of then-president Alejandro Toledo.

Fifteen years later he reappeared, this time at the head of a striking teachers’ union.

Castillo’s poor Andean roots have led some to compare him to Bolivia’s former president Evo Morales, but Montoya says the analogy is misguided. “I see him more as a Pepe Mujica,” he said, referring to Uruguay’s plain-speaking leftist president from a decade ago. “He’s a simple, honest man.”

The problem is knowing what this simple, honest man would do in government. Who would serve in his cabinet and who would advise him? While he flatly denies he is a communist, his party, Free Peru, is headed by a Cuban-trained Marxist ideologue, Vladimir Cerrón. It is unclear who would hold the reins of power.

In March, Castillo gave a local television interview in which he said he wanted “to revive the economy, renegotiate contracts, nationalise Camisea [a gas project], eliminate private pension funds and return money to Peruvian workers”.

He confirmed that as president he would sit down with foreign mining companies to squeeze more money from them, even to the point of driving them from the country.

“I imagine that at the end of the conversation multinationals are going to pack their bags and say ‘you know what? I’m out of here’ and the [Peruvian] people will say ‘that’s fine, you can go because we want companies that come and invest and negotiate with the state’,” Castillo said.

As UK-based consultancy Teneo noted, Castillo would come to power “with a shaky mandate . . . a lack of experience and a tendency to improvise, an uncosted policy programme . . . a weak position in congress and a radical rival to his leadership within his party”.

Like Castillo’s own journey to the polling station in the first round of the election in April, when he paraded through the streets of Cajamarca on a skittish, bucking horse, it promises to be a rough ride.

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Coronavirus latest: Boris Johnson extends lockdown restrictions in England to July 19




New York state has the lowest seven-day average Covid-19 positivity rate at 0.44 per cent, governor Andrew Cuomo said, citing Johns Hopkins University data.

On Sunday, the state health department said 383 new positive cases were identified from 110,437 tests – a rate of just 0.35 per cent.

“We’re beating back Covid-19 across the state and New York has the nation’s lowest seven-day average positivity rate, but it’s going to take more vaccinations to get us across the finish line,” Cuomo said.

The state plans to offer “exciting incentives” for vaccinations, he added.

Cuomo said more than two-thirds of New York adults – 67.2 per cent – now had at least one vaccine dose, and 60 per cent were fully vaccinated.

“I encourage everyone eligible who hasn’t yet been vaccinated to take advantage of a free $20 lottery ticket.”

Scholarships in the State University of New York system and City University of New York were also being offered.

The number of new coronavirus cases tallied in the US has remained near levels not seen since the early days of the pandemic, an encouraging decline that has prompted some states to scale back their daily reporting of Covid-19 trends.

Infections, hospitalisations and deaths related to Covid-19 have dropped sharply since a winter surge, brought down by a vaccination rollout that kicked off in December. 

Overall about 64 per cent of American adults have now received at least one shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The US has reported 15,928 infections per day in the week ending June 10, which is down about half in the span of one month and 94 per cent from a January peak of nearly 251,085, based on a Financial Times analysis of figures from Johns Hopkins University.

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Hong Kong-Taiwan spat threatens cross-Strait business




Official representation between Hong Kong and Taiwan is set to end this year as mounting political tensions threaten one of the region’s most important trade and investment relationships.

The number of staff in Taiwan’s representative office in Hong Kong has dwindled over the past two years as the territory has stopped issuing visas, with the documents of those who remain due to expire by the end of November.

Hong Kong also abruptly suspended operations of its representative office in Taipei two weeks ago, ending its official presence there. The stand-off has grown so severe that Taipei has begun making contingency plans for a situation without on-the-ground representation in Hong Kong, two senior Taiwanese government officials said.

The breakdown in relations follows rising military tensions between Taiwan and China and a crackdown by Beijing on pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong that has led some activists in the territory to seek refuge in Taipei.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened to annex it if the island fails to submit to its control indefinitely.

Analysts said that cutting official channels would undermine Hong Kong’s traditional role as a conduit for business and financial exchanges between Taiwan and China. Despite the dispute with Beijing over sovereignty, Taiwanese companies are among the largest foreign investors, employers and exporters in mainland China.

Taiwan air force personnel during the visit by President Tsai Ing-Wen
Military tensions between China and Taiwan have escalated, but investment and trade across the Taiwan Strait remains important to both countries © Ritchie B Tongo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A significant part of trade across the Taiwan Strait trade goes through Hong Kong, and many Taiwanese investors in China also use Hong Kong for financial, taxation and legal purposes. Last year, Taiwan was Hong Kong’s second-largest trading partner, while Hong Kong was Taiwan’s fifth-largest, with HK$504bn (US$65bn) in total bilateral trade. Taiwanese companies invested US$912m in Hong Kong in 2020, while Hong Kong-registered companies invested US$555m in Taiwan.

“Hong Kong has been a springboard for Taiwanese companies into mainland China and it has also been a springboard for Chinese [companies] into Taiwan,” said Liu Meng-chun, a research section director at the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research, a Taiwanese government-backed think-tank.

Tensions between Hong Kong and Taipei have escalated over the past two years after the territory started demanding Taiwanese diplomats sign documents declaring their country part of China as a precondition for being issued a visa.

After Taipei refused, the number of staff at its office in Hong Kong began to dwindle, from 20 to eight today, according to the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan’s cabinet level China policy body.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, said it was temporarily closing its Taipei office because “Taiwan’s series of actions in recent years has severely damaged Hong Kong-Taiwan relations”.

A Hong Kong government official suggested the suspension came on instructions from Beijing.

“I think Beijing is of the opinion that [Taiwan’s representative office] affects national security,” said Sung Yun-wing, an economics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who is also a member of a semi-official think-tank, the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, in Beijing.

“There have been reports that Taiwan has been encouraging the protest movement in Hong Kong, which has turned violent, so the protest movement is not only against the Hong Kong government but also Beijing,” said Sung. He added China was also concerned Taiwan was “sheltering” Hong Kong protesters.

While Taipei has been careful to avoid being seen as making it too easy for Hong Kong dissidents to flee to Taiwan, civil society groups in the country have supported the protest movement with advice, money and logistics. “This is something we cannot interfere with as they have done nothing illegal,” said a senior Taiwanese China policy official.

Historically, Hong Kong’s most important economic role in the Taiwan-China trade has been as a sea and air trans-shipment hub for Taiwanese companies to supply their factories in southern China with components.

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While analysts suggested that much of this commerce could continue even if official ties between Taiwan and Hong Kong were severed, they foresaw a sizeable impact on financial services, tourism and education.

“Hong Kong plays a very important role for Taiwanese private wealth management,” said Patrick Chen, head of Taiwan research at CLSA, the brokerage.

He said many Taiwanese individuals had accounts in Hong Kong, where the local units of Taiwan’s banks offered them offshore investment products not accessible under the island’s stricter regulations.

Liu of the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research said many Taiwanese enterprises kept profits from their China operations with their Hong Kong affiliates for tax purposes.

“These things would become a lot more cumbersome without official representation because you would have to start sending documents back and forth for notarisation,” Liu said.

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