Cartagena is the city with the most tourists in Colombia. With its weather, Caribbean atmosphere, the sea, and walled city — preserved since its construction in the 16th century — it is a paradise for millions of people from all over the world.
The great attraction of its stone walls, colonial houses and fortresses from the Spanish era, has grown ever since it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in November 1984.
In the last three years alone, international tourism in Cartagena has grown by 13%. In 2019, before the pandemic, around 140,000 tourists arrived from abroad every six months, according to data from the Cartagena Tourist Information System (Sitcar), and much of this growth is due to the publicity gained with the title: World Heritage Site.
What few people know is that this title can be lost. In fact, Cartagena almost lost it in 2017 due to the construction of the 'Aquarela' building, a 31 floors construction, that was ordered to be demolished because it disturbed the visibility of the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, another historic monument of the city.
In 2018, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee gave Colombia until 2022 to demolish the controversial tower.
In addition, on Thursday, Aug. 19, the fort of San Sebastián del Pastelillo — one of the most visited sites by tourists and locals thanks to its view towards the city's inner bay — suffered an alteration that was unseen by authorities. The outside part of its wall, which has been preserved in coral stone with its natural color since the 18th century, was painted white and later painted yellow.
Alberto Escovar, director of the heritage division of the Culture Ministry, said that "the entire walled cordon is considered an asset of national interest and any intervention must have the permission of the Culture Ministry."
For this reason, the painting work in ‘El Pastelillo’ Fort was suspended to be inspected by the Ministry.
For Cartagena and Colombia, it is very important to belong to the international heritage protection scene because, as Isabela Restrepo, director of the Historic Center of Cartagena Foundation, said: "this generates a positive image of the city as guardians of the heritage that is shared with humanity."
In addition to generating interest in local and foreign tourists to know the city, these visits also strengthen the economy with the investment of visitors.
To stop taking care of the fortifications and lose its status is a risk the city cannot afford.
"This loss would generate a negative image throughout the international community. This could affect the local and national economy, in addition to increasing the leisure area of the historic center, generating excess noise pollution, visual pollution, exploitation of minors, violence and insecurity, because the city would not be committed to protecting this cultural space," said Restrepo.
At present, 1,018 places in the world are world heritage sites. However, in recent years, Cartagena is not the only site to be in danger of losing its designation.
On July 21, 2021, Liverpool lost its title as a World Heritage City after the committee found that the city's urban developments threatened the value of the waterfront, causing serious deterioration to the historic site.
Something similar happened in 2009 to the Elbe Valley in Dresden, Germany, which was also removed from UNESCO's select list of heritage cities after a bridge was built in the center of the city that threatened the cultural landscape.
Currently, the Italian city of Venice is doing everything it can to avoid being stripped of its World Heritage Site status due to the deterioration of the historic city. Preventing the crossing of cruise ships through the canals, generating solutions to pollution and avoiding massive tourism in the area are some of the solutions the local government has enacted to remain on the list.