Images of pristine beaches, sparkling waterfalls and smiling locals fill the screen. At first glance, it could be an ad for any number of picturesque destinations.

"You run risks," says a warm voice in a Spanish accent, "when you go to Colombia."

What?

That's right. Colombia, a nation that has long struggled to build its tourism industry amid a reputation for national strife, has grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns.

COL-CARTAGENAThe government's tourism promotion arm, Proexport Colombia, is running an aggressive international ad campaign that not only references the concept of peril but actually embraces it.

"You know, they're right," intones the announcer. "You run the risk of being amazed, of marveling, of falling in love."

Then a slogan appears: "Colombia: The only risk is wanting to stay."

"We always knew it would be a risky campaign," said Juliana Uribe, Proexport's marketing director.

"But despite being risky, we also knew it would create a lot of awareness, and that's what has happened," Uribe added.

The bold campaign is getting plenty of attention on TV, in print media and across the Internet.

A longer version of the TV spot, which uses a more gentle narrative, has been viewed more than 200,000 times on YouTube, and more than 21,000 users of the social networking site Facebook have signed up as fans of the campaign.

And although Proexport formally launched the "only risk" effort late last year, it wasn't until mid-October, when the provocative 30-second spot began airing on CNN, CNN en Espanol and CNN International, that the campaign galvanized attention stateside.

The strategy was a no-brainer, said Uribe.

"We knew from travel fairs, workshops and press visits that people were still worried about the issue of security in Colombia," she said. "So we were forced to create a strong campaign that aggressively tackled that concern."

Along with local advertising agency Sancho Bbdo, Proexport settled on a concept aimed at upending the anxious traveler's "paradigm from 'I don't want to go to Colombia' to 'I don't want to leave Colombia,'" according to campaign materials.

The campaign uses a series of sleek testimonials from foreign nationals who have settled in Colombia to convey the message that visitors there need fear only one thing: having to return home.

The response to the message, according to Uribe, has been gangbusters.

"We've gotten tons of emails through our website and journalists have been fascinated by the campaign," she said.

 Indeed, the "only risk" effort has garnered plenty of media coverage "without us having to spend one cent," she added.

Uribe declined to estimate the overall costs of the campaign but did note that, in keeping with Colombia's limited tourism promotion dollars, the budget is not substantial.

Changing fortunes

The gutsy campaign comes at an opportune time for tourism operators in Colombia.

Violence has dropped sharply in recent years, according to the U.S. State Department, with the government of President Alvaro Uribe dealing a series of sustained and highly publicized blows to Colombia's armed insurgency movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, perhaps better known by the acronym FARC.

"You now see Discovery or the History Channel doing a documentary on the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt," said Francisco Montoya, the general manager of the Charleston Hotel in historical Caribbean seaport Cartagena, referring to the dramatic July rescue of Betancourt, a onetime presidential candidate and six-year FARC hostage. "All of that is good news, and it shows the country in a different light."

Tourists have apparently taken note of Colombia's changing security landscape, with the number of visitors climbing from 1 million in 2003 to 2.1 million in 2007, according to Proexport figures. U.S. cruise lines are once again sailing into Colombia's ports, and airlines have upped their flights into the country.

"Spirit, Copa and Avianca all have daily flights to Cartagena now," said Montoya. "That wasn't the case four years ago."

But while a promotional campaign may be well timed, the unusual approach of this particular effort has some observers scratching their heads.

Risk in admitting risks

"My visceral reaction is that they are raising a giant negative that might create as much anxiety as it seeks to alleviate," said Eric Dezenhall, the head of Dezenhall Resources, a Washington public relations firm that specializes in crisis communications.

COL-BOGOTAWhile Dezenhall noted that he hasn't seen whatever focus group data may have shaped the campaign, he wondered if "by raising risk, are you injecting it into a consciousness where there might not otherwise be great awareness?"

Adam Armbruster, a retail and broadcasting consultant who specializes in developing Web and TV campaigns, agreed that Proexport's "only risk" messaging is, well, risky.

"When there's a negative, you don't do well by reiterating the negative," said Armbruster, a partner with consulting firm Eckstein Summers Armbruster & Co. in Red Bank, N.J. "You only sell positives."

That seems to be the lesson of a popular parody of the campaign, a video spoof of the "only risk" ad replaces images of beautiful scenery with those of gun-toting narco-traffickers.

That clip has been viewed more than 500,000 times on YouTube, more than twice as often as the real campaign's clip on the site.

"There are some criticisms, as there will always be," said Proexport's Uribe, who noted that officials added the word "only" before "risk" to North American materials in response to concerns about how the stark messaging would play in the U.S. In contrast, the Spanish-language slogan is simply "The risk is wanting to stay."

"But the great majority of our input has been overwhelmingly positive," she added.

Claudia Delgado, an executive with Colombia's National Association of Tour Operators, said she approved of the campaign's no-holds-barred approach.

"Using the word 'risk' is audacious," said Delgado. "But by using testimonials from people who have come to Colombia and settled here, it gets the message across that this is a country people will love."

Among them is Carlos Trelles, a Peruvian public relations executive who settled in Colombia eight years ago.

"I ran the risk," Trelles said with a laugh. "I came for two days, and I stayed."

Trelles, who works with regional tourism boards and operators at Bogota-based Axon Communications, said truth-telling is important in a market that has faced the types of difficulties Colombia has.

"The slogan's play on words, from a marketing standpoint, is very risky," he acknowledged.

But a "shock" approach is needed, he said, in order for people to see the progress that Colombia has made.

"Peru used to be known mainly for [the insurgent group] the Shining Path, and in the last few years that's changed," said Trelles. "That's what's happening in Colombia, in my view."

Looking ahead

Observers said it's too early to tell whether the "only risk" campaign will succeed in persuading anxious travelers to add Colombia to their itineraries. Proexport's Uribe pointed to sustained positive feedback from key audiences but agreed that more time is needed to fully gauge the impact of the effort.

Regardless of the outcome, however, even the campaign's doubters give Colombia high marks for gutsiness.

"One way to look at this is, 'We're sick and tired of this misconception [of Colombia], and we want to provoke the debate once and for all and let the chips fall where they may,'" said Dezenhall. "My admiration for that is genuine."

For more information on Colombia and the campaign, head to www.visitcolombia.com.

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI