Colombia Beckons Travelers

By Dialogo
January 01, 2011



For decades, violence in Colombia made international headlines. Kidnappings
and killings kept foreign tourists and investment away. However, many paramilitary
groups have weakened and it has been years since cocaine kingpins such as Pablo
Escobar exerted so much power. That’s why the recent trips made by tourists around
the world comes as no surprise to Patricia Velásquez, manager of La Macarena travel
agency in Tampa, Florida.
“Obviously the fear of going to Colombia has disappeared,” Velásquez said to
Diálogo. “No longer does the stigma of Colombia as evil, drugs,
narcotrafficking, murder exist.” Velázsquez said in the past 10 years, she has seen
more travelers choosing Colombia as a destination. “Anglos, Cubans, Central
Americans want to go to Colombia, and they have gone and returned so much.”
The new security climate, say analysts who spoke to Diálogo,
is also the result of major actions against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, or FARC, a narcoterrorist group that has been active in the country for
more than 40 years. Robert Munks, senior analyst for the Americas at IHS Jane’s, a
global intelligence consultancy, told Diálogo that the FARC was a
serious threat to the integrity of the State when its armed members were in mountain
camps near the capital of Bogota itself. But now, he explained, the FARC has
“severely weakened,” and has dispersed into small units around the
country.

“There is no doubt that the image of Colombia now is much safer than it was
20 years ago, even just 10 years ago,” Munks said in a phone interview from London.
Dismantling the FARC was one of former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s
main goals during his administration (2002-2010), according to Samuel Logan, the
regional manager and analyst for the Americas at iJET Intelligent Risk Systems.
He said Uribe confronted the country’s instability and created strong
national and international support. The United States has supported Colombia’s
actions with Plan Colombia, a military and financial program launched in 2000 to
curb drug smuggling and combat insurgency, Logan told Diálogo.
“National police received a lot of high-level training and funding that dramatically
or significantly improved their ability to go after the FARC and tackle them on more
of a tactical level.” The result was that Colombia demobilized many paramilitary
fighters, decreased much of the coca cultivation, brought many drug kingpins to
justice and improved social development.
Silvana Paternostro, a Colombian-born journalist and author of the book
My Colombian War, remembers a time when people were scared to
take the roads from one city to the next. Paternostro, a senior fellow at the World
Policy Institute, told Diálogo in an interview from Mexico City
that making the roads safer coupled with tourism campaign efforts have made
travelers interested in Colombia. “Colombia was out of reach for international
travelers for many years; now it is a place that has opened up and people are
curious to go and see it,” she said.
COLOMBIA by the numbers - Since 2002, Colombia has seen marked reductions


84% decrease in terrorist acts

45% decrease in homicides


88% decrease in homicides
Source: World Market Pulse


The country that few know
The Colombian government’s response to violence and insecurity has paid off.
Tourism became one of the most dynamic sectors of growth in the nation in 2010, said
Paula Cortés Calle, president of the Colombian Travel & Tourist Agents
Association. Tourism is the third leading economic sector, representing 2.2 percent
of the gross domestic product, Cortés said in an interview with
Diálogo. The nation that just a few brave travelers explored
has become a travel destination for millions. Cortés said in the past eight years,
the number of foreign visitors has grown 129 percent.
The national security service agency, known as DAS, reported an 8 percent
increase in foreign tourists from October 2009 to 2010. DAS reports that the
majority of travelers are from the U.S., followed by Venezuelans, Ecuadorians and
Spaniards.
Cortés said Colombia offers a variety of tourist attractions, from tropical
beaches along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts to vibrant green Amazon jungle to
culturally rich and modern cities. Wherever travelers roam within Colombia,
experiences with cuisine, people, music, culture and architecture await them. There
is also a rapidly-growing demand for medical tourism as foreign visitors hear about
the country’s low-cost and high-quality health care services.

“Security opens doors,” Cortés said. “If we advance more in security issues …
we are going to have more tourists.”
Colombia’s accomplishments have involved more than a security response. The
nation has been working on state-building, cleaning up corruption, promoting human
rights and developing new job opportunities in rural areas.
But changing Colombia’s reputation for drug violence has not been easy. The
government and private sectors have spent millions in promoting the nation around
the world with campaigns such as “Colombia is passion” and “The only risk is wanting
to stay.” In addition, travel warnings against Colombia have softened, new air
travel destinations have opened and the government has removed visa requirements for
citizens from more than 70 countries.
Security also brought back international cruise lines. “Five years ago we
received 45 ships annually and today we do more than 200 ship arrivals,” said María
Claudia Lacouture, president of Proexport, an agency that promotes foreign
investment, tourism and exports in Colombia.”
To make space for all the visitors, major hotel chains such as Hilton and
Marriott are investing in new building projects, and the government has been
offering tax exemptions for development.
Colombia’s efforts have been recognized by the international tourism
industry, said Bolívar Troncoso, president of the Pan American Confederation of
Schools of Hotel and Tourism Management, or CONPEHT. In an interview with
Diálogo, Troncoso said that the tourism industry’s development
depends highly on the country’s security. In the case of Colombia, he added, the
security has changed almost in a “variability of 360 degrees.” He said Colombia’s
security approach has become an example for other nations with security
concerns.

A changing impression
Colombia’s decline in violence has also made foreign investment more
attractive. At the same time, the security environment has allowed for Colombia’s
main companies to work in a better climate at home while opening new global
markets.
The South American nation is a chief producer of coffee, petroleum, textiles
and flowers, and in 2010 enjoyed GDP growth of 4.5 percent, according to Bloomberg
news agency. Furthermore, Colombia has slashed its inflation rate from 18 percent to
5 percent over the past decade, and foreign direct investment in 2010 nearly matched
the record $10.6 billion invested in 2008, according to Colombia’s Central Bank.
Today, when it comes to vacation destinations, Patricia Velásquez knows that
Colombia is on travelers’ minds. With that, half the battle is won.

To learn more about Colombia, visit www.colombiaespasion.com

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