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Touristification and Displacement

Gentrification impacts the affordable housing stock and displaces lower income residents of neighborhoods through the arrival of a higher-income creative class. This demographic change leads to economic changes within the landscape that create an environment that is no longer sustainable for its lower income residents, forcibly displacing them into other lower income neighborhoods. Touristification, or tourism-based gentrification, has a similar effect on the affordable housing stock of a neighborhood. This paper will explore the case study: Cartagena de Indias, Colombia under the scope of tourism-based gentrification and its impact on the affordable housing stock. 

Within the last 50 years of city development, there has been a strong focus on tourism as an economic driver. This is largely noted in the Historic Center, which saw high-income sectors restoring homes within the historic walled city as second residences, leading to upper-middle-income families procuring apartments within different historic properties as second homes. This process aided in conserving many historic colonial heritage buildings, as private investments accompanied efforts by the national government to conserve the fortification of the walled Historic Center. However, more recent investments have been directed towards creating temporary accommodations for vacations through hostels and hotels, creating a recreational identity within the walled colonial city.


The focus on tourism within Cartagena, Colombia began in the early 1960s, as President Lleras  Restrepo deemed it a national priority.[1] The Corporación Nacional de Turismo was initiated as the main entity in charge of attracting investment within the tourism sector of the country, and Cartagena was the crown jewel. Tourism became a way to rectify Colombia’s image of violence and drugs to a more welcoming sun and sand destination. The development initially targeted Bocagrande, focusing on the narrow peninsula’s beaches. This prompted the development of infrastructure that targeted hotels and future expansion within the neighborhood. Investment came from the Colombian elite, as well as drug traffickers,[2] who helped develop infrastructure, high rises, hotels, and condominiums.

Within the development of the tourism sector in Bocagrande, the neighborhood began to see different economic assets introduced into the urban fabric. Cartagena was branded as a destination for “sun, sand, and sex,”[3] and as a result, discotheques, casinos, travel agencies, hotels, restaurants, and jewelry stores began to sprout up in the neighborhood to attract and maintain touristic interests. The neighborhood became known as “New Miami” due to the many white high rises filling up its skyline.

Bocagrande began changing over time, as many of the hotel towers began to transform into permanent second residences for the elite. as the area shifted from short term tourists to long term residents staying in their second homes, the area transformed the population’s sense of permanence,. This demographic shift pushed  tourists out of the neighborhood and into the neighborhoods of the Historic Center: Centro, San Diego, and Getsemaní. While not fully cleared of short-term visitors, Bocagrande began to concentrate tourism facilities into a limited area as to maintain control over where tourists would venture into the neighborhood. This concentration allowed for more manageable surveillance of the area and policing of the short-term visitors to create a safer environment for the long-term residents.[4]

“Bocagrande’s sparse poor population was more easily ejected from the peninsula.”[5] Initially, the wealthy built grand villas in the neighborhood, but more recently, there has been a shift towards living within apartments. Villas require several laborers to maintain the grounds and housekeeping within the estate, ranging from gardeners to housekeepers, chefs, and nannies. Within apartment complexes, many tasks were eliminated or only required a single person to maintain the home due to its smaller footprint.[6] Present day Bocagrande is quieter than it was during its touristic peak in the 1980s. Most streets empty of tourist facilities are quiet: only the presence of housekeepers walking dogs or maintaining landscaping outside.[7] Today, the working class within this neighborhood are of lower-income Afro-Colombian roots. 

The tourist facilities within the neighborhood are concentrated along a central main street, one block inwards from the beach. Along this corridor are large commercial complexes, casinos, restaurants, and tourism agencies, and several plastic surgery clinics. The commercial content along the corridor centralizes around familiar names and functions for tourists, like beachwear and large name franchises, or pastiche restaurants that try to imitate a specific theme.[8] Everything within this strip is familiar, reminiscent of other tropical locations that tourists might have visited before.[9] 

As development within the city focuses on the tourism-based economy, the exclusionary effect of tourism does not simply revolve around the expulsion of lower income populations from the area. The tourism industry in Cartagena focuses on commodification of culture, specifically Afro-Caribbean Colombian. When advertising what Cartagena has to offer, there is always a backdrop of Afro-Caribbean culture on brochures and marketing content. The depiction is usually of a fisherman, a Palenquera, or any ‘character’ that would be simplified into a subservient role. The content provided strips away any  Afro-Caribbean Colombian culture, simply commodifying it as an exotic backdrop to the tourists’ vacations. This is further personified through Paseo en Chiva, a guided tour bus that departs from Bocagrande and targets all the main attractions in the Historic Center since 1980.[10] The bus is a cultural symbol itself, as its original use was on farms from the countryside. During the day, tours set out with a guide that provides basic facts about each destination, setting a colonial narrative. The tour itself asks the visitors to imagine themselves as European colonialists and how they would be discovering Caribbean culture. Guides further commodify the city as a set to a pastiche act by telling tourists, “you will be the main actors.”[11]

The concentration of content that the Chiva guides focus on does not revolve around the actual history of the Historic Center. There is almost a complete disregard for the history of the fortifications or other key sites on the trip, solely focusing on delivering tourists to vendors that have signed agreements with the tourist agency running the trip. There is a direct focus on stopping at specific locations and directly in front of stores that have promised commission to the guide as tourists always tend to buy keepsakes from their vacations. Stops on the route focus also on photo opportunities with cultural ‘actors’ whether they are Palenqueras, craftsmen, or anything that further commodifies Afro-Caribbean culture. 

While tourism drives Cartagena’s economy, there is a disconnect between that influx of money and the people of the city. The economy of the city follows a colonial narrative as well. The idea of extraction and exportation is commonplace; the elite become richer while the lower income population do not reap any benefits from this economy.[12]


As a city with a rich historical center, Cartagena’s increasing gentrification has brought on a high level of party-based tourism. Gentrification within the city is not confined to displacement of residents alone. ‘Touristification,’ or gentrifying tourism is defined as “a process of socio-spatial change in which neighborhoods are transformed according to the needs of affluent consumers, residents, and visitors alike.”[13]  There has been a steady increase of foreign visitors to Cartagena over the years, growing from 50,000[14] annually in 2002 to over 3 million[15] in 2017, which has led to the expulsion of lower income residents from the Historic Center.

Long before gentrification of the Historic Center expelled lower income residents from the area, other forces changed the demographic concentration of Cartagena. The city experienced dramatic population loss as residents moved out from the area and into Barranquilla. Cartagena’s population dropped from 25,000 to 8,000 as more people moved to find economic stability, leaving behind a depopulated Historic Center.[16] Vacancy prompted the return of some of the elite into the Historic Center, as they began to renovate older buildings as second homes. These renovation projects ignited the gentrification process within the Historic Center.[17] Other buildings have been taken over by lower income residents through squatting after abandonment, while other restoration projects were taken on through private investments to create five-star hotels. Vacancy, however, remains a major issue within the center.

With the increase of hotels and restaurants within the neighborhoods of Centro and San Diego, the concentration of tourists shifted away from Bocagrande and to the Historic Center. With regulations in place to preserve the buildings within these neighborhoods, the only uses that were permitted to operate within the Historic Center were temporary accommodations, learning centers, and food services.[18]  This further diminished the diversity of uses within the area, effectively limiting the neighborhood inhabitants to short term visitors. 

With the influx of tourists and the businesses that thrive on that economy, such as cafes, restaurants, and discotheques, there have been numerous sightings of private security forces hired by businesses to police the area that tourists flock to. This policing is to provide a ‘safe space’ for tourists to enjoy the beauty of a picturesque Cartagena without the interference of the reality of the city. The security forces monitor local residents and vendors from ‘harassing’ the tourists through charging for unwanted musical performances, vendors walking around selling trinkets, as well as impoverished populations trying to make a living through selling items or begging for loose change. 

Within the Historic Center, the restaurants around tourist hotspots cater to familiar tastes that coincide with the typical international market. Menus of the establishments surrounding Plaza Santo Domingo have identical menus, with servers attempting to attract business through verbally advertising their western menu of pastas, pizzas, and sandwiches with exuberant pricing that only tourists would pay for and could afford. Alongside identical menus, some establishments follow kitsch designs that have no relationship to the context of the city.

The issue within the Historic Center can be summed up within one term: overtourism. The rise of mainly North American tourists within the center has bred new issues for Cartagena’s historic landscape.[19] The consumption of the city through superficial means has led to very limited daytime activities such as a few museums and trips to nearby islands. Simultaneously, it has given birth to a chaotic night life that is disrupting life for local Cartageñeros due to the loud parties and noise generated by tourism.


Disruption of life for locals within Cartagena is a byproduct of touristification. There is a stark difference between the streets of the Historic Center during the day and at night. During the day, there are quiet crowds roaming the city and exploring major sites that are only open during the earlier hours, such as Castillo San Felipe, Las Bóvedas, and trips to Baru and other islands nearby. The night scene, however, is drastically different. Most young travelers visit Cartagena for the extremely affordable vacation, as well as its branding as a party city with enticing discotheques, legal prostitution, and a notorious drug market.

Loud blaring music from discotheques and disorderly tourists roaming the streets at night intoxicated is commonplace within the Historic Center. Throughout the area, there are numerous clubs that are frequented mainly by tourists and blare loud music late into the night. Surrounding these clubs, there is an underground drug marKet.[20] Drug traffickers and dealers target younger tourists who linger around clubs and bars, offering them lucrative prices for ‘high quality cocaine’ or marijuana as a ‘softer’ alternative.

Within the plaza of the clock tower, groups of sex workers are seen working the area at night. Their clientele focus is mainly North American tourists, where language is no longer a barrier because of technology. The young ladies are seen utilizing Google Translate on their phones to communicate with their clients. While prostitution is legal in Colombia, there is a large problem concerning sexual exploitation of minors within Cartagena’s sexual tourism industry. Due to the fear of stigmatization, the issue has long been ignored for fear of losing annual visitors should this problem be addressed publicly.[21] In 2009, the NGO Renacer founded “La Muralla ¡Soy Yo!,” a campaign that aims to educate the public about this issue, as well as aims to prevent, report, and prosecute those who exploit children in a sex trade.

This tourism chaos centralizes within Centro and San Diego and is threatening to spread into Getsemaní. The neighborhood of Gestemani is currently going through gentrifying efforts through more hostels popping up, different facilities that short term visitors would use, like the odd concept of Beer & Laundry, and mural arts covering the walls of the buildings in the neighborhood in attempts at making it more attractive to visitors. However, there has been considerable efforts from the residents of this neighborhood to resist gentrification. There has been pushback by the locals in attempts to curb touristification of their neighborhood. 

In February 2020, there was a protest led at Plaza de La Trinidad by residents against the chaos that tourists were inflicting upon their neighborhood through the loud parties located at clubs between their homes, and the drunken bar brawls that would take place in the plaza outside these clubs. This subsequently caused the shutdown of the plaza for two weeks. Afterward, local police forces patrolled the area to keep an eye on the tourists and to make sure the plaza stayed safe for the residents. This is a complete opposite reaction to policing and who is being secured when compared to San Diego and Centro. Here, the security forces are looking out for the wellbeing of the permanent residents, while in San Diego and Centro, private security teams are protecting business assets such as tourist comfort zones.

Tourism-induced expulsion of local residents and commercial activities within Cartagena is commonplace, especially within the Historic Center. It appears to be an inevitable consequence of developing the economic market through tourism. One way to slow down displacement of locals due to increasing property value would be to require large contributions from the national government through rent subsidies to support residents and entrepreneurs that would face displacement. 

The economic transformations have not been beneficial to those being displaced, as the market does nothing to compensate them in their displacement. It places economic strain on residents, forcing them to relocate to other districts while still possibly holding the same employment within the Historic Center. This creates an economically burdened society, as the loss of affordable housing within the Historic Center is difficult to mitigate. When gentrification takes place and no governmental subsidies are introduced to reduce displacement, there is no possibility for lower income residents to return to the center as it becomes impossible to afford due to tourism driving up real estate prices.

Nour Jafar is a second year Master of City Planning candidate specializing in Housing, Community, and Economic Development. Between writing her thesis, arguing with strangers on the internet, and making an obscene amount of bread, you can find her rolling her eyes at academic articles exploring post-colonial planning, gentrification, and workforce development policy.

By Nour Jafar

The Impact of Tourism-Based Gentrification on Affordable Housing Stock

Figure 5.JPG

A bar in Plaza de la Trinidad in Getsemani commonly frequented by tourists.

Source: Author

1 Elisabeth Cunin and Christian Rinaudo, “Consuming the City in Passing: Guided Visits and the Marketing of Difference in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia,” Tourist Studies 8, no. 2 (2008): 267–86,
/14687976080992522 Cunin and Rinaudo.
3 Ibid

Figure 3.JPG

Las Bovedas (The Dungeons) are now transformed into a souvenir market near the Historic Center’s fortification wall by the Caribbean Sea

Source: Author

4 Joel Streicker, “Spatial Reconfigurations, Imagined Geographies, and Social Conflicts in Cartagena, Colombia,” Cultural Anthropology 12, no. 1 (1997): 109–28,
5 Streicker.

6 Streicker.
7 Fieldwork observations collected during trip to Bocagrande
8 Fieldwork observations
9 Streicker, “Spatial Reconfigurations, Imagined Geographies, and Social Conflicts in Cartagena, Colombia.”
10 Cunin and Rinaudo, “Consuming the City in Passing: Guided Visits and the Marketing of Difference in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.”
11 Cunin and Rinaudo.
12 Streicker, “Spatial Reconfigurations, Imagined Geographies, and Social Conflicts in Cartagena, Colombia.”

Figure 7.JPG

Plaza de la Trinidad’s atmosphere on a typical night while police patrol the area.

Source: Author

Figure 6.JPG

Poster calling for protests at Plaza de la Trinidad by the residents of Getsemani.

Source: Authorr

13 Agustín Cócola Gant, “Tourism and Commercial Gentrification,” no. February (2015).
14 Cunin and Rinaudo, “Consuming the City in Passing: Guided Visits and the Marketing of Difference in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.”
15 “Tourism Statistics.” Colombia Reports. Colombia Reports, July 12, 2019.
16 Bustamante Patrón, German. “Ayer, Hoy Y Mañana de Cartagena Y Su Patrimonio Historico.” PowerPoint Presentation, Cartagena, Colombia, March 9, 2020.

17 Sairi T. Pineros, “Tourism Gentrification in the Cities of Latin America: The Socio-Economic Trajectory of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia,” in Tourism and Gentrification in Contemporary Metropolises: International Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2017), 75–103.
18 Bustamante Patrón.

19 “Tourism Statistics”
20 Fieldwork collected through nighttime strolls through Getsemaní, Centro, and San Diego.

21 Frölich, Nicole. “Cartagena Takes Action against Sex Tourism: DW: 12.03.2020.” DW. Deutsche Welle, March 13, 2020. 

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