This is a bit of a touchy subject. Reciprocity or an eye for an eye as some biblical phrase reads always has its supporters. From the death penalty to boarder fees there is always an underlying populist cry for equality of punishment.
During the last number of years, many South American countries have introduced reciprocity fees for visitors from countries that charge a visa fees for an equivalent visa to visit said country. Plainly put, Canadians, Americans and Australians (to note the most common) are required to pay an entrance fee to at least three countries in the region and the sum is exactly the amount paid for a national of one of those countries to procure a visa for Canada, the USA or Australia. Brazil, somewhat predictably goes the next step and has made the visa process so arduous as to actively discourage Canadians from travelling there.
As I approach Colombia I have strategically brought my European passport so as to avoid a 160, 000 peso ($80 USD) charge at Bogota’s International Airport. This leaves me contemplating two distinct, but related issues: Colombian’s cry for justice after years of brutal violence and the damage done by some minor fee that may be some sort of negotiating point.
Colombia’s long struggle with drug and and poverty driven violence is well documented. Slowly the nation of 45 million inhabitants is gradually emerging from terror, isolation and economic stagnation. Colombia spends heavily on tourism promotion and is inching toward a solid and hopefully lasting peace. This is wonderful.
The death toll from the decades-long conflict involves the pseudo-Marxist FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army) in violent opposition to the national government and groupings of far-right paramilitary groups in horrendous.
I remember sitting in a lecture back in 2001 where a speaker at that time argued Colombia had become an archipelago of cities – the rebel forces essentially controlled most of the countryside. Despite platitudes of fighting for agrarian reform and peasants’ rights, the reality of the FARC in particular was constant brutality, kidnapping for ransom and narco-trafficking.
Colombia’s rather dubious international reputation was, to some extent well earned and it is tribute to the Colombian people, government and military that peace talks are underway in Cuba.
Thus the issue of reciprocity. Many normal – often poor – Colombians have lived in fear for over a generation and as these conflicts gradually fade, people understandably want justice. Colombia finds itself at a similar crossroads as did South Africa under Mandela and the North of Ireland with the Good Friday Agreement.
The most difficult element of all these struggles is that every side has a point of view. Any student of Latin American history will find it easy to understand the root causes of armed struggles in the region. Gross inequality, inept and corrupt governments, the churches almost limitless power and a strict social hierarchy all offer recruiting factors for militant movements.
Returning to the $80 fee the Colombian government wants to charge me for having a Canadian passport is perfectly understandable, yet alarmingly short sited.
At the highest level Colombia could be accused of mix-messaging when it announces to the world; “Come visit! We are open to tourism and business.” But you’ll have to pay to come in.
In a magnificent country where the majority of the population earns less than $300 / month, backpackers from around the world will use local services and build organic tourism routes that will help Colombia’s government demonstrate the advantages of peace.
As a tour guide and tour operator, I know Colombia remains a hard sell, but at the least I have an itinerary written and ready to go! Having to budget for an additional border fee and bureaucracy creates yet another hurdle to offering Colombia alongside other, perhaps better known destinations.
And in deference of reciprocity, do I think the fees charged by Canada, the USA or other countries for many South Americans to acquire visas unfair? Perhaps. But visas generally exist for a reason – and if the reason is spite, I think a mistake is being made.
Here safe and sound I am officially European and my welcome to Colombia was warm and efficient!
Of course in Colombia’s case, this fee is levied specifically upon Canadians, an act which leaves me wondering if Canada’s arrogant conservative government has managed to yet again leave the Great White North more isolated.
Colombia is an emerging economy and a potentially very important trading partner. By discouraging travel with these fees, there has to be a palpable cooling of relations between Canada and Colombia. This is short-sited. I do expect more of Canada, which should be a leader in the region.