Colombian tourism minister breaks silence


The United States played a more elaborate role in the events leading up to the rescue this month of 15 high-profile hostages in the Colombian jungle than had been previously acknowledged, including the deployment of more than 900 US military personnel to Colombia earlier this year in efforts to locate the hostages, according to an official.

Living up to its slogan and corporate image, “Colombia is Passion,” this Latin American country forges ahead with its tourism agenda and master plan set for creating a positive image abroad. Thanks in part to the efforts by trade, industry and Colombian Tourism Minister Luis G. Plata who believes that though it may take time to correct misconceptions about Colombia, reality is improving; and that tourism will be benefit from a massive clean-up of a society marred by violence, crime and narcotics.

Following the release of captives who have emerged from a cocoa field in the Colombian jungle and back to freedom, eTN got this exclusive scoop from the Republic of Colombia’s top tourism official.

eTN: How has the hostage rescue affected Colombia as a country and tourist destination?
Minister Luis Plata: I don’t think there was any direct impact to the tourist economy but in general terms, it has been positive for the image of the country. To see that there is a lot of progress made within our system and that we don’t make headlines for negative things but also positive things, is good. In many publications, we’ve been featured too as an up and coming tourist destination. We’re seeing Colombia in a new light which certainly shows reality is changing but much faster than perception.

eTN: How has the incident impacted your slogan Colombia is passion?
Minister Plata: It was indeed a success. Any image campaign needs to be based on reality. You can’t work on a campaign if the reality is a mess. As reality gets better, as we improve on that reality, then we can start promoting. If we were in a state of complete disarray here, it would be hard for us to do any sort of promotion in tourism.

eTN: Has news on the rescue mission scared off some prospective tourists? Has the media coverage created fear, not there before, of hostage-taking and kidnappings in your country?
Minister Plata: On the contrary, good news in Colombia can be seen as not the most positive in terms of image such as the recent rescue or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) members turning themselves in. FARC’s leader passed away three months ago, for instance, is good news to us. But for people outside the country, these are strange. Though in general, if people cannot make that connection, in the medium- and long-term, these have positive effects on tourism promotion.

eTN: Has there been any concrete change, better than 15 percent increase in tourism arrivals for 2007, after the United Nations World Tourism Organization assembly held in Cartagena in November?
Minister Plata: Many things have happened since after November. Major leaders of FARC have either been killed or extradited including Raul Reyes (number two FARC member killed in a military raid), Manuel Marulanda (head of the FARC passed away), and three key figures in the FARC turned themselves in. All these were good news reaffirming the policy of democratic security.

eTN: By how much has tourism improved since the UNWTO assembly?
Minister Plata: About 6 percent, a lower growth since last year of the same period of 13 percent. The biggest issue we had – another good news for Colombia, but bad news for tourism – is the appreciation of the Colombian peso from Pesos 1900 in November to Pesos 1650 to US$1 last June. Things have gone a lot better, but made the country more expensive for visitors.

eTN: Does that mean hotel investors have shied away, too?
Minister Plata: Not the investors, but tourists in general, which explains why the growth rate is not as high as last year’s. 2008’s still growing but not at the same pace as 2007. As for tourism investments, due to the tax incentives (created by the passage of Law 788/2002 offering income tax breaks on earnings for 30 years for new hotels and ecotourism projects for remodeling and expansion) we’re on schedule with 14,000 rooms coming into service through 2011.

eTN: Have US investors pulled away from development commitments due to the weak economy?
Minister Plata: Preliminary figures for 2008 showed $4.5 million of FDI (foreign direct investments), an increase of 24% over the same period as last year’s with Americans holding majority stakes. In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of US investments into Colombia.

eTN: What lures US investors into Colombia despite a cash-strapped US

Minister Plata: Many things including stability, a large and growing population of 44 million, the FDI’s the country’s ability to negotiate and favorable tax conditions.

eTN: Aside from promoting cities like Cali, Baranquilla, Popayan, Villa de Leyva, Santa Marta and San Andres, how has Medellin, a reformed former drugs and crime hub reached a turning point into becoming a possible tourism attraction following Pres. Alvaro Uribe’s security initiatives? How hard was it to face the security challenge?
Minister Plata: As Colombia improved in security, we’re able to bring in more business, investors and tourists to the country. Now that security has become much better, we have to make sure we continue the path to economic growth and provide jobs and opportunities. Our fight against terrorists and drug dealers with security and soldiers alone is better won as we create opportunities and better living for most Colombians.

eTN: Still on security, this time on Venezuela, while Colombia receives
more than $600 million a year in security and antinarcotics aid from the
United States, any perception of a more in-depth American role in the rescue
would have likely inflamed emotions in neighboring country Venezuela, where
political supporters of President Hugo Chavez support the FARC. How has the
rescue been viewed by Venezuela? Has the rescue affected your critical
relations with Chavez?

Minister Plata: Together with President Uribe, we’ve met with President
Chavez last Friday, four days ago. We had a positive meeting. President Chavez assured us that he would like to turn the page and re-establish relations with Colombia at all levels in the best possible way. We’re please about this and we look forward to working with Venezuela. After all, we’re linked by 2,300 kilometers of border, a common path, common language and common culture. Venezuela is an important partner. And so, we need to work with them.