Living up to its slogan `Colombia is Passion`, this Latin American country flexes its muscles in the tourism arena with a master plan bent on creating positive image abroad.
Tourism Minister Luis Guillermo Plata agrees it may be difficult to change perceptions about Colombia. “As with any company or country, it always takes time to correct misconceptions. We have a big gap between reality and perception. Reality is improving today compared to five years ago; however Colombia’s perception will take longer to change before we can show the world we have quality product,” he said addressing the local and foreign press at the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) 17th General Assembly – the official meeting that promises to boost tourism demand and build an image for Colombia.
In an interview, Plata said, “Colombia is still left with the image of the late 80s and 90s. There has been tremendous change in this country with a complete turnaround. Unfortunately, reality changes faster than perception. Hence, we are fighting to change that old image created by regular media reports and the picture people have in their minds of Colombia in the past decades.” In fact, he points to Medellin, the most notorious for its drug cartel history, as his uttermost favorite city as it is, to him, the most beautiful city in Colombia.
The tourism minister underscored they have to recognize what they’ve done until the present time. Two years ago Colombia has launched the national campaign, which is neither a tourist nor investment program, aimed at introducing Colombian business to the rest of the world. “Colombia is more than coffee, sea or beaches…It is the people, a wide variety, diverse population giving the world their energy, their smiles, their warmth despite hardships they face. We do this by inviting people and the media to Colombia to see it for themselves,” Plata said.
To bring in the much-needed number of visitors (ideally placed at four million for 2010 in order to achieve target for tourist traffic), the Colombian minister realizes security should be at the top of his agenda. He reveals that the democratic security policy of President Uribe Alvaro Velez has been the foundation of his administration since he began in 2002. “We continue to work hard according to this strategy. Although it is true there are certain parts of Colombia which are not safe, we will not promote tourism to unsafe locations. It is the intent of the government to provide heightened security not only for tourism, but because this is what our country requires today,” Plata added.
To prove his point about currently strenghtened security measures, he even gives his personal mobile during the opening session of the assembly. “Call me on my direct number 313 45 7571, should you encounter any problems,” he said.
Colombia has reached 15 percent growth in arrivals in the first seven months of 2007, consolidating its position in the international leisure and business markets, according to the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer issued October 2007.
Thousands of cruise passengers are also calling on Colombian ports. “Cartagena is clear about its role in confronting stiff competition in the region,” said the Mayor of Cartagena Nicolas Curi. Development towards the northern part of the city is on the rise. “We also take into serious account the environment, under the framework of sustainable development,” he said adding the biggest contracts for travel fair venues and the most prestigious events in the world are taking place in his backyard.
As chief of the city, Curi is well set on promoting tourism and social development consistent with Uribe’s platform. “From the warmth of the people of Cartagena, to our various climates and lakes, our oceans and the highest peak right off the seaboard, what we live for today is the result of the working within the policy of the president,” he added.
The center that connects the Americas, a geographical strategic location in the continent, this destination has surpassed the one million mark.
Colombian Hotel Association or COTELCO President Jaime Cabal Sanclemente said he hopes Colombia goes beyond projected arrival totals of 1.35 million in 2007 (from a 13 percent exceptional rise in 2006), with sustained growth through to the end of the year. He said, “The fact is that Colombia has followed a different trend since 2006, consistent with the trend of sustained recovery since 2002. 2007 is more or less the same with growth forecast at two percentage points higher. We expect this to continue through the end of the high season in December and January.” Current increase in tourist arrival can be attributed to the promotional activities undertaken abroad by governmental agencies like PROEXPORT which promote local exports, and by the private sector like COTELCO, taking part in international fairs and sales blitzes to European countries and the US.
Sanclemente revealed however there was low occupancy in hotels previously due to the lack of tourism stimuli, hotels are bound to regain lost business from 2007 to 2010, with occupancies projected to climb by 65 percent average rate nationwide and 75 percent in principal or urban locations such as Bogota and Cartagena. “Improvement in our hotel product and infrastructure paves way for an expansion of 20,000 new rooms, with new theme parks and attractions, new improved roads and higher level of security. We need to attract investors and new investments in road development, much the same way we did with our airports,” he said.
Construction and operation of new convention centers is under way in Cali, Barranquilla, Armenia, Popayan, Villa de Leyva, Santa Marta and San Andres. There is more work in the pipeline on improving domestic and foreign airline connectivity and on new tourism signposts, tourist information centers and program added Sanclemente.
Even the youth of Colombia play their role more actively in promoting tourism. COTELCO Joven, a new chapter of the Colombian Hotel Association congregates the youth including tourism students and young professionals, around Colombia’s popular tourist destinations. David Duque, president of COTELCO Joven nationwide said: “Majority of hotel and tourism investments occur on a non-sustainable base. Our main idea is to develop products from grass-root levels, the ones we consider as naturally attractive, and our vast human resource. Our focus is to train young people before they enter the tourism business. Our goal is to prepare them to overcome the actual and future challenges of sustainable tourism, without brushing off social responsibility.”
A year ago, the youth association rolled up its sleeves, touching the sensibilities of the youth, while promoting the value of sustainable tourism through campaigns such as Tourist Caravans, Youth across Colombia. “This program aids our young people to comprehend the importance of their role in tourism development taking into consideration the three factors — local population, environment and social economic development. We’ve started a qualification process in tourism with at least 60 tourism students around different regions of Colombia. We are certain that to be a competitive country, quality is the main and constant key factor,” said Luis Playa, vice president of COTELCO Joven. Duque notes Colombia’s population is estimated at 43 million; more than 50 percent are younger than 29. Though generation and attraction of foreign investments are vital, investment in training the future stakeholders is significant to this youthful nation.
Minister Plata promises to advance his programs and attract more American travellers. “From the US, we received 28 percent of 1 million tourists last year. In spite of all travel warnings and negative news, America remains the biggest source for tourism as it has always been traditionally. Moreover before year-end, we will receive a total of $8 B in foreign direct investments from the States considering investments in the past never exceeded the $1 billion mark,” he said. US hotel chains such as the Marriott, Hyatt and Hilton hotels are coming back to the country, due to the recent tourism incentives such as the 30-year tax holidays that make Colombia simply an attractive investment haven.
Before the general assembly confirmed the formal itinerary, delegates asked Plata what risk they face with coming to Colombia. To them he said, “The risk is you may want to stay,” the tourism head recounted before the UNWTO forum.
Video of Nelson Alcantara’s trip to Colombia. Tourism is once again poised to flourish in the country that was once referred to as the murder capital of the world. Colombia’s new tourism slogan: “The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay.”