Cartagena takes its place in the sun at TravelMart event

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Colombia was in the spotlight as hundreds of travel trade buyers and suppliers from around the world descended on the Caribbean seaport of Cartagena de Indias last month for the 31st annual TravelMart Latin America trade show.

A record 300 buyers representing 230 companies met with 560 suppliers from 265 companies and tourism organizations from across Central and South America at the three-day event. The confab was organized by Jacksonville, Fla.-based event-management firm William H. Coleman, in cooperation with Cartagena's city tourism board, Turismo Cartagena de Indias.

Officials from the city tourism board and Proexport, Colombia's national agency for tourism promotion, said they viewed the return of TravelMart Latin America to the Andean country as a rare chance to showcase its potential at a global level, at a time when its political, economic and tourism fortunes seem to be on the rise. (The first and only TravelMart Latin America held in Colombia took place in Bogota in 1983.)

Maria Jose Abuabara, tourism advisor at the Proexport office in Cartagena, said that the scenic and historical seaport was the country's most obvious candidate to host an international tourism conference.

The city, founded in 1533, boasts a charming, historic, walled core that's home to many restaurants, attractions and boutique hotels. Bocagrande, the city's exclusive beachfront resort and residential neighborhood, is booming.

"We're promoting all of Colombia, but Cartagena is the No. 1 destination in the country," Abuabara said. "Colombia, in effect, is sold by Cartagena ... [where] tourism is the main industry."

If Proexport's visitor numbers are to be believed, the city is doing a good job. In the first three months of this year, Colombia attracted 1.3 million foreign visitors, compared with 900,000 for all of 2006.

"This year, we had an important increase, and I think we are getting better positioned in foreign markets," said Abuabara.

She attributed the upturn in arrivals to "a lot of hard work" in the four years since Proexport's founding.

The organizers of TravelMart Latin America, which was held from Sept. 12 to 14 at the Cartagena Convention Center in the picturesque historic center, credited this year's record buyer registration to curiosity about the destination.

Irma Coleman, president and CEO of William H. Coleman, said that this year's registration was an all-time high for the show.

"We think this high buyer registration reflects the increasing awareness and interest in Cartagena and other Colombia tourism destinations," Coleman said.

Of the 300 buyers in attendance, approximately 30% hailed from the U.S.

"In fact, about 40% of our own appointments at the Proexport booth were from the U.S.," Abuabara said.

Avianca increases U.S. service

Colombian flag carrier Avianca has noted the uptick in interest in Cartagena and Colombia in general, particularly from the U.S. On Nov. 1, the airline plans to boost nonstop service between Miami and Cartagena from five flights per week to daily service.

Avianca, which will launch Orlando-Bogota service in May, is also considering launching nonstops between Cartagena and New York sometime in 2008, said Juan Ricardo Castillo, Avianca's international sales director. The carrier already flies nonstop from New York (Kennedy) to Bogota, Medellin and Barranquilla.

"We think that New Yorkers looking for a long weekend getaway might opt for Cartagena," Castillo said.

He met with interested U.S. tour operators at TravelMart.

"It starts with the larger tour operators, and we've seen them, including the most prestigious companies, begin to add Cartagena and Colombia to their Latin America brochures and catalogs," Castillo said.

Using Cartagena as a jumping-off point, Proexport plans to begin promoting Colombia's other destinations. These include Bogota, the Caribbean islands of San Andres and Providencia, the Amazon River basin and the country's "coffee route" in the Andes Mountains.

"We are finding we have other products, such as the Amazon region, that are important for us," said Abuabara.

To contact Destinations editor Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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