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.
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
But if you speak
with anyone in Medellin about tourism for more than a few minutes,
one infamous name always comes up: Pablo Escobar.
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
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
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
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
"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
biggest selling point today is security, according to Tony Ruiz,
general manager of the recently renovated InterContinental
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."
practically disappeared," Ruiz added. "Five or six years ago there
were over 1,000 kidnappings per year. Last year, there were
Ruiz said that
the number of foreign visitors at his hotel increased from 25% in
2002 to 40% in 2006.
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
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
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."
Bogota never used
to be considered a tourism destination, according to Angela Guzman
Villate, tourism consultant for Colombia's capital.
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
"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
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
"Some hotels in
Bogota used to close for the holidays because there was no
business, but now they are staying open," she said.
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
"They come with
these incredible shopping lists," he said. "They fill five or six
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."
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
worked to promote Colombia in conjunction with Proexport, the
Colombian government agency that handles tourism
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."
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].