With the booming Cali as its business center, amazing natural beauty at short distances, a rich historic heritage and a variety of cultural attractions, the Cauca Valley attracts millions of Colombians from other regions every year.
The problem is that almost all of them are visitors, not tourists.
It is a problem because visitors come and go the same day, practically leaving no trace of their presence in the local economy. As an example, María Elena Muñoz Valencia, from Carvajal Foundation, mentions the thousands of pilgrims from all over Colombia that travel to Buga, a town in the Cauca Valley, on the 14th of each month to pray in the Basilica of Our Lord of Miracles (Señor de los Milagros).
“They travel at night by bus and bring even their food. All they leave behind is garbage”, she said.
Aiming to transform more visitors into real tourists, in 2006 a group of public and private entities from the Cauca Valley launched Destination Paradise, a project to develop rural tourism, with support from the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) of the Inter-American Development Bank and the Carvajal Foundation.
As many sustainable tourism initiatives supported by MIF, the project promoted products and tourism services offered in five municipalities in the vicinity of the city of Cali as a single brand, Destination Paradise. It also designed several routes and packages to be offered to big tourism operators.
The project also put great emphasis in fostering partnerships between governments and private organizations to improve the quality of tourism products and services and to train hundreds of micro and small business, from restaurants to hostels operators.
Muñoz Valencia coordinated the project’s execution. “There was a series of isolated and empirical initiatives, but we had to transform them into real tourism enterprises”, she said.
After nearly four years, the project has been able to implement the Destination Paradise brand both locally and nationally. The municipalities have recorded an increase in tourist inflows, while merchants have seen a growth in sales.
Additionally, the project encouraged the majority of participant business owners to formalize their enterprises.
An emblematic experience is the case of Margarita Arango, owner of El Rancho de Margoth Restaurant, in the town of Guacarí. Although her business was in operation for almost a decade, Arango acknowledges that before she was invited to join the project she considered closing her small eatery because she wasn’t able to pay the bills.
But in the last three years, the restaurant has expanded from 25 to 60 seats. And her growing reputation has allowed her to organize meals for 300 people, for which she has to set up tents outdoors, rent equipment such as tables and chairs and hire more staff, generating more activity for the local economy. Before, on a Sunday during the high season, the restaurant could make around 250.000 pesos ($130). Now, it easily gets 1 million pesos ($517). Last year, on Mother’s Day the restaurant made 4 million pesos ($2,068).
“This experience has been great for us”, says Arango, who works with her husband, five children and two employees. “I gave life back to me”.
With other business owners, she participated in various activities organized by Destination Paradise, such as shopping clubs, food manipulation workshops and cost management courses. For example, before the project Arango was barely aware of how much her restaurant spent in the markets. Now, she knows exactly how much each dish she serves costs.
They also took advantage of an excursion to Cali, where they had the opportunity to meet famous Colombian chefs and successful restaurant owners. Arango was particularly impressed with the case of a man who began by selling food door to door and now has five establishments. The main lesson she learned: despite all the setbacks, you must persevere.
“Don’t let the first obstacle frighten you”, she says.
Besides increasing her sales, her tireless efforts to improve the quality of her restaurant’s products and services have garnered recognition in the regional level. In 2009, a TV station from Cali organized a gastronomic competition in the Cauca Valley. El Rancho de Margoth won a prize for its “Corned Guacarí”, a traditional dish made with ground corn, plantains and fish.
And Arango is not resting on her laurels. She took a loan and is now buying a lot to expand her parking lot. Arango still gets up at 4 a.m. to cook.
“I keep my hands busy in the stove”, she says. “We cannot let quality drop”.