National Geographic World Legacy Awards - Judging

Sandra Howard

Vice Minister of Tourism, Colombia

Sandra served as the Secretary General of Sustainable Tourism for the Small Islands Forum and has represented Colombia at the Americas Commission of the United Nations World Tourism Organization. She worked extensively in both radio and television before being appointed as Colombia's Vice Minister of Tourism. She has spoken frequently on the importance of sustainable tourism around the world including at the Global Tourism Economic Forum in China, the UNESCO World Conference on Tourism and Culture in Cambodia, and at the Tourism & Peace Conference in Medellin, Colombia.

WLA: You grew up on the tropical island of Providence which is part of the San Andres archipelago - a popular tourism destination in Colombia. Did that influence how you view tourism today?

Sandra: Absolutely. Providence, and its larger neighbor San Andres, are like a postcard version of the perfect tropical island holiday destination. But like most beautiful travel destinations, there is another side of the reality, too, where local residents work hard to make a living from the seasonal tourism trade, coping with a large influx of outside visitors that can sometimes overwhelm local communities or have a negative impact on nature and cultural traditions. So as a girl growing up on a small Caribbean island, I witnessed tourism development as a local villager. Today, when I meet with other small communities interested in harnessing tourism's economic potential to improve their lives or who are concerned about the impact of rapid tourism growth on their traditions, I can relate directly to what they are talking about.

WLA: What are some of the lessons that you have carried with you into your current role as Colombia's Vice Minister of Tourism?

Sandra: That is easier to make sure tourism development is properly managed at the start, then to try and fix what is broken later. This is where sustainable tourism practices are extremely important. The good news is that tourism can be managed and planned well to protect nature and contribute to the well-being of local people, and that is at the heart of the work we are doing now in Colombia. We are an emerging tourism destination as a country and that means we have the opportunity, and as a government representative, I would add an obligation, to make sure that Colombia represents sustainable tourism development. It is what excites me every day in the work that I do to advance Colombia as a sustainable tourism destination.

WLA: You have also been an advocate for peace through tourism. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Sandra: In Colombia we are coming out of more than six decades of civil conflict. This has also made tourism development in parts of our country almost impossible until the last few years. As in other parts of the world, poverty breeds conflict. Tourism has proven itself to be a powerful way to combat poverty, particularly in rural areas, by improving the lives of local people through jobs and economic development. That can only happen in a safe and peaceful environment. Part of the peace agreement that our government has worked on to end  the civil war in our country is about bringing more economic opportunities to rural and remote parts of Colombia, so tourism in that sense also helps promote lasting peace. Equally important, tourism contributes to better understanding between peoples from different parts of the same country, and also from different parts of the world. From the Balkans in Europe to Myanmar in Asia, tourism has played an important role in fostering both peace and understanding. With peace, even Colombians are now able to enjoy parts of the country they only saw in pictures or videos.

WLA: Has being a judge for the World Legacy Awards also influenced your thinking about tourism?

Sandra: Yes! It has been an incredible learning experience to read about other places that are working hard to get tourism right and succeeding. The World Legacy Award Finalists' stories are so inspiring. It is like connecting with a global village of people committed to making the world a better place - from indigenous communities protecting their heritage in Scandinavia to public-private partnerships working to alleviate poverty in Africa. It shows that the power of sustainable tourism as a force for good is real and we just need to create the right conditions for it to flourish. That is what we are doing today in Colombia. And of course, learning about best practice examples in other parts of the world is helpful.

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