Colombian tourism officials are aware of the negative publicity their country has received since the 1980s, but they are certain that once travelers realize what Colombia is like today, tourism will grow. They say that Colombia is safer and more attractive now than it has been in years.

During tours of Medellin and Bogota, I spoke with government officials and travel professionals from the private sector about the past, the present and the potential for tourism in Colombia.

According to government figures, about 1 million international tourists visit Colombia every year. Officials are looking to double that number in the coming years.

Recasting Medellin's image

The capital of the Antioquia region, Medellin sits in a narrow valley originally inhabited by the Aburraes Indians. The first Spanish settlement dates to 1615. Medellin has lush greenery, a spring-like climate year-round, and many historical and cultural attractions.

But if you speak with anyone in Medellin about tourism for more than a few minutes, one infamous name always comes up: Pablo Escobar.

A Medellin native, Escobar was one of the world's most wanted, and most violent, drug dealers. His Medellin Cartel dominated headlines in his hometown until his death in 1993.

But even as they recognize the problems caused by one of Medellin's most notorious residents, locals make a point to put that violent era in the past as they recast the city's image as a tourism and business magnet.

The U.S. State Department has taken note of improvement in Colombia's cities. In its most recent consular information report, the agency, while warning that "violence by narcoterrorist groups and other criminal elements continues to affect all parts of the country," noted that "violence in recent years has decreased markedly in most urban areas, including Bogota, Medellin, Barranquilla and Cartagena."

Those urban areas are leading the charge to attract more business and leisure travelers to Colombia.

"Medellin was one of the most violent cities in the world in the 1980s and early 1990s," said Fernando Restrepo, general manager of Plaza Mayor Medellin, a convention center that opened in March 2005. "It was no longer an industrial powerhouse. But today that's changed. We want to be a city like Miami, with many visitors, conventions and expositions."

On a national level, Colombia President Alvaro Uribe has been widely praised for cracking down on crime, the drug trade and guerilla activity. Locally, observers credit Medellin's mayor, Sergio Fajardo Valderrama, with a lot of the progress. He introduced a program to encourage bilingualism in the city, offering residents subsidized English classes.

"He wants a bilingual city, to better promote tourism," said Luz Elena Naranjo, the city's subsecretary of tourism.

In addition to the Plaza Mayor Medellin, infrastructure improvements include new public libraries, an extended train transportation system, a rejuvenated botanical garden, a new cultural center and new schools.

Medellin's biggest selling point today is security, according to Tony Ruiz, general manager of the recently renovated InterContinental Medellin.

"With security comes investment, tourism and business," he said. "Four years ago, there were fewer than 10 foreign companies [with offices] here. Now there are more than 76."

"Crime has practically disappeared," Ruiz added. "Five or six years ago there were over 1,000 kidnappings per year. Last year, there were none."

Ruiz said that the number of foreign visitors at his hotel increased from 25% in 2002 to 40% in 2006.

"People are starting to see Medellin with different eyes," said Restrepo. "In the world, we were known as the capital of drug trafficking. Now they are going to know us for how we've overcome that situation."

According to Ruiz, there are more than 4,000 hotel rooms in Medellin, and within the next two years, 14 new hotels will open with an additional 1,500 rooms.

But Ruiz warned that hotel construction may be too far ahead of demand.

"Our occupancy is 60% or more," he said. "When hotels sell out only six nights per year, it doesn't make much sense to build more. In the future, we will need more hotel rooms. But not now."

"Today we are showing a Medellin in transformation," said Naranjo. "It's a city that's ready to be visited. We are experiencing a great period of optimism in Medellin. We don't want people to associate us with fear and crime, but with hope."

Underrated Bogota

Bogota never used to be considered a tourism destination, according to Angela Guzman Villate, tourism consultant for Colombia's capital.

"Whenever you asked someone about Bogota, they would say that it's cold, it's boring, it's congested, it's dangerous," she said. "People keep bringing up the issue of safety. We have to make an effort to communicate the truth about Bogota."

So what is the truth?

"Within the past 10 years, everything has improved," Guzman Villate said. "It's more ordered, more attractive. We think it's the right time for Bogota to become a tourism destination."

To help spread their message, the city has introduced a campaign called "So What Do You Know About Bogota?" It features a series of Spanish- and English-language brochures focusing on nightlife, shopping, dining, health tourism, business, convention travel and religious tourism.

Most foreign visitors who come to Bogota today do so to conduct business, according to Guzman Villate, but the city is working to convince them to extend their stays. One of Bogota's leisure promotions last year was a first for the city: A campaign to encourage Christmas and holiday visits, focusing on seasonal and religious events as well as the city's restaurants. Guzman Villate said the result was an increase in holiday visitors in 2006 compared with 2005.

"Some hotels in Bogota used to close for the holidays because there was no business, but now they are staying open," she said.

Orlando Salazar Gil, general manager of the Crowne Plaza Tequendama, called Bogota "the best-kept secret in South America."

"Bogota today has more than 800 restaurants," he said. "You'll find whatever kind of cuisine you want, from around the world."

Shopping is also a major draw in Bogota, according to Salazar Gil, who said that an increasing number of business travelers extend their stays just to shop.

"They come with these incredible shopping lists," he said. "They fill five or six suitcases.

"One million visitors are arriving per year in Colombia," Salazar Gil added. "We want to reach 2 million visitors by the end of this year. When we reach that point, we will be considered a serious destination. We have the firm hope that Colombia will arrive very soon in the minds of travelers. And I think we will achieve that."

Colombia tourism officials will be looking for more attention in September, when TravelMart Latin America takes place in Cartagena, the first time the annual event will take place in that city.

"We believe there is great potential for Colombia as a destination and that as efforts to promote it are put into place, there will be continued growth," said Martha Pantin, a spokeswoman for American Airlines.

American has worked to promote Colombia in conjunction with Proexport, the Colombian government agency that handles tourism development.

"Colombia offers a variety of experiences: modern cities; historic colonial sites; flower and fauna; beaches; and medical tourism -- a variety of opportunities for many tastes," Salazar Gil said.

Even during the nation's most difficult times, the core strength of Colombia has remained, he said. "We don't deny that we went through a period of very severe crisis," Salazar Gil said. "But the nature of Colombians never changed."

For more information about Colombia, call the Fondo de Promocion Turistica at (011) 57-1 212-6315 or visit www.turismocolombia.com.

To contact reporter Mark Chesnut, send e-mail [email protected].

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