Colombia Makes Tourism Push
by Harvey Chipkin

Colombia is making a pitch to become a major destination for North American travelers through sizable investments in infrastructure, transportation and marketing.

Two of Colombia’s top tourism officials were in New York last week to spread the word. They sat down with Travel Market Report to discuss why travel agents should put Colombia on their radars.

The officials also answered questions about the safety of traveling in Colombia, in light of a continued travel warning from the U.S. State Department.

Growing numbers
Since Colombia made tourism a priority 10 years ago, the country has made sizable advances, according to Luis German Restrepo, director of Proexport Colombia, which oversees tourism as part of the nation’s trade portfolio, and Camilo Duque, leisure tourism director, U.S.

Visitor arrivals have increased to 4 million annually, with almost half coming by air or ship from international gateways, they said.

The numbers include 350,000 U.S. visitors, and last year, arrivals from the U.S. increased 3.6% between January and October.     

Is it safe?
Asked about lingering concerns over security, Restrepo called the perception of Colombia as a dangerous place “a relic of the 1980s.”

Today, said Restrepo, Colombia has a rapidly growing middle class, declining unemployment, and a stable economy, the third largest in South America.

He also pointed to the 134 tour operators who now package the country and the 4 million travelers who visited last year.

State Dept. warning
The U.S. State Department warning for Colombia advises U.S. citizens that security in Colombia “has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogota and Cartagena, but violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural areas and parts of large cities.”

Restrepo said the warning is a “legal framework” that’s similar to those for many other destinations. “We are working closely with the State Department on this,” he added. (Colombia has also applied to be part of the U.S. visa waiver program.)

Positive developments
Following are among the positive developments for Colombia’s tourism outlook cited by Restrepo and Duque.

•    New hotel inventory. Since 2004, more than 15,000 tourist-class hotel rooms have opened. Another 7,000 rooms will be added this year. Most major chains are now represented in the country including Hilton, Starwood, Marriott and IHG.

•    Air access. More than 200 flights operate weekly from eight U.S. cities to Colombia. Flight time from Miami to Cartagena is two and a half hours, and from New York to Bogota about six hours. Air connectivity within the country is good, including, for example, more than 50 flights daily between Bogota and Medellin.

•    Cruise expansion. The Caribbean port of Cartagena has long been Colombia’s primary port of call for cruise ships; now cruises are calling in other ports on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. The number of cruise passengers to Colombia has jumped from 51,000 passengers on 43 port calls in 2006 to 415,000 passengers on 210 calls this season.

•    Caribbean resort development. The island of San Andres is being developed with all-inclusive resorts and other hotels.

•    Growing meetings business. The International Congress and Convention Association Colombia recently ranked Colombia as the 29th best country in which to hold a meeting.

•    Travel agent support. Colombia’s specialist program for travel agents was recently revamped.

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