BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Security improvements have allowed Colombia to become one of Latin America’s emerging tourist destinations.
A total of 1.8 million tourists visited Colombia in 2011, a 7.3% increase over 2010, said Sergio Díaz-Granados, the minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism.
“Colombia is increasingly seen by more international visitors, not just as a secure investment destination but also as having a wealth of opportunities for tourism,” said Díaz-Granados at the International Tourism Fair in Spain (FITUR), held in Madrid last month.
Authorities hope an increase of hospitality services will spur the numbers higher.
“In 2012, we expect to build 2,775 rooms in four- and five-star hotels in cities with high tourism rates such as Medellín, Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta, and in Natural Parks in [the departments of] Magdalena, Chocó and the Eje Cafetero, including Bogotá,” Díaz-Granados said.
The number of Colombia’s international tourists nearly doubled from 2000 to 2010, going from 732,000 to 1.474 million, according to the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism.
Worldwide tourism increased 6.7% in 2010, but it jumped 8.9% in Colombia compared to 2009, according to PROEXPORT, a governmental entity tasked with promoting Colombian tourism, investments and exports.
Colombia’s rich cultural traditions, coupled with its extraordinary natural sites and seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, have been a magnet for tourists like American sisters Megan and Maureen O’Connell.
The O’Connell sisters, from Jackson, Wis., attended the Barranquilla Carnival last March.
“We were a bit afraid to go to Colombia, because there’s a tendency to believe the country isn’t safe,” Megan, 28 said. “But the truth is that tourists couldn’t be treated any better. I have nothing but good memories of my visit to Colombia, and beyond feeling welcomed, I felt very happy to see how foreigners are respected and integrated into the culture.”
“My sister convinced me to go to Colombia,” Maureen, 26, said. “I was against the idea of going, but once I was there, I changed my mind. Really, there is no better way to understand that Colombia is a paradise until you get here. It’s a matter of breaking down the taboos that say it’s not a safe country for foreigners.”
Improved security has resulted in an increase in tourism, but it has also spurred foreign investment.
Direct foreign investment in the tourism and hospitality industries increased 38% from 2000 to 2011. In 2009, investments totaled US$964 million but jumped to US$1.520 billion in 2011, according to PROEXPORT, which indicates travelers have regained confidence in visiting the Andean nation.
Argentine David Tomasella visited Medellín on business last year and was impressed with the infrastructure and growth he saw in a city traditionally known for narco-trafficking and violence.
“The city was outstanding. I was incredibly surprised, I thought I was going to find a very unsafe place,” he said. “However, the people are nice, accommodating and really want to show off the good things about their culture and country. I went mainly for business. But this year I plan to go back as a tourist. Financially it’s an excellent city to do business in and in terms of leisure. It offers a wide variety of things to do.”
The strategies implemented and efforts made by President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration have had positive results in increasing the number of Colombians who will face fewer restrictions on travel abroad.
“The perception of Colombians has changed in other countries,” said Álvaro Calderón, director of Migratory and Consular Affairs at the Foreign Ministry.
In 2001, only 15 countries worldwide did not require Colombians to have visas.
In 2011, the number increased to 29.
Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín has convinced four countries to eliminate the visa requirement for Colombians in the past six months, including Russia and Jamaica. In addition, countries like Haiti and Mexico have loosened their policies to the extent that Colombians who hold visas for the United States can enter these countries.
The countries that do not require Colombians to have visas are:
Calderón said the effective diplomatic strategies of Santos and his predecessor Álvaro Uribe are the reasons why more countries are welcoming Colombians without visas.
Calderón is working on the project presented by Chilean President Sebastián Piñera to the presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Peru to create the Pacific Visa, which would allow businesspersons free access to these countries.
“In Colombia we’re working on improving how we are perceived inside and outside the country,” Díaz-Granados said. “Our strategy is to continue generating opportunities with countries that offer us commercial opportunities, and by the same token, we’re helping Colombians to be able to travel all over the world.”