BASKING IN THE SUN

Colombia 2013 | TOURISM | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Jean-Claude Bessudo, President of Grupo Aviatur, on the changes in the perception of Colombia internationally, trends in the market, and the company's domestic and foreign activities.

Jean-Claude Bessudo
BIOGRAPHY
Jean-Claude Bessudo was born in Nice, France in 1947. He attended the Los Andes University in Bogotá studying High Company Management. After university, he began working for Aviatur Travel & Tourism Agency as a Personal Board Assistant, and in 1970 he became the Director General & President of the Aviatur Group and branches. He speaks Spanish, French, and English. He has won numerous awards in the field of tourism and published a book on improvised strategy.

How do you assess the development of the tourism industry in Colombia?

In my opinion, Colombia is one of the best tourism destinations in the region; it has everything. Above all are its friendly people, who are always smiling and welcoming foreign guests. This makes a huge difference when comparing the country to other destinations. However, Colombia has suffered problems; it went from dealing with a lack of image in the industry to a very bad reputation in a short period of time. Only when Colombia developed the National Tourism Corporation did the country start experiencing tourism trends and emerge from anonymity. In this regard, we followed promotional trends, and today we have offices in neighboring countries as well as in the US and Europe. In 2011, some 1.7 million tourists visited Colombia, and that puts the country at the same level of visitors as in 1982. Nevertheless, we are optimistic and hopeful for the future, because there has been a very positive trend over the last few years. At the end of the 1990s, Colombia was receiving only 500,000 tourists a year. It is true that the tourism industry was booming in the 1980s, but several key events at the international and national level damaged the country's image worldwide and we are still in the recovery phase.

What trends can you identify in the tourism industry?

Back in 1982, the main purpose of 85% of Colombia's visitors was to discover this beautiful country, whereas the remaining 15% were here on business. Curiously, these figures have reversed; now, about 85% of the visitors are business tourists, and the remaining 15% are here to discover Colombia. On top of that, tourists mainly come from South and Central America. Colombia boasts breath-taking landscapes, beautiful spots along the coastline, vistas in the wild interior, and amazing people, history, and culture.

What are some of the main challenges the Colombian tourism industry must face to grow further?

The main tourist destinations across the world have an element that characterizes them. For example, London has Big Ben, Paris the Eiffel Tower, and Brazil has Christ the Redeemer. Colombia does not have something like this, and therefore we lack a distinct image in the worldwide tourism industry. One of our main challenges is to build up a global image for Colombia and change the damaging stereotypes that come to people's minds when thinking of the county. Countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam faced similar challenges many years ago, and today they have emerged as top destinations in Southeast Asia. As soon as we can show people that security is not a matter to be concerned about, I am sure that the tourism sector will experience a massive boom. I am hopeful that we can make this happen within the next decade.

What is Aviatur's growth strategy, and what parts of the business are performing best?

In the past few years we spotted a very interesting niche market in Colombia that I believe will offer us the chance to further grow and diversify our portfolio. The idea is to manage other travel agencies or offer them a partnership with Aviatur's large network. As of today, travel assistance and Aviatur's services to third-party companies are some of the business elements that are performing better, and I think they will play an important role in our future strategy. In addition, MICE tourism has plenty of room for growth in Colombia, and we are already very active in this segment of the industry. Finally, I would like to add that there are many governments that externalize visa services, and that is a market niche where we are already operating, with countries such as Spain, Sweden, and India. We see the potential to further grow in this area.

Which foreign markets is Aviatur Group active in?

We have operations in almost every country in the region: Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, and with AXA Assistance in Panama where we provide cruise services. We also have a cargo agency operation in Miami. Our network of correspondents enables Aviatur to operate in any country around the world, and that is something that makes us stand out in the industry.