READY WITH PASSION

Colombia 2013 | TOURISM | REVIEW: TOURISM

The outlook for Colombia's tourism industry is looking increasingly upbeat as the country focuses on improving its offering and adding much needed infrastructure.

Following a drastic improvement in security, a hotel construction boom, and strong government initiatives, international and domestic tourism in Colombia is on the rise. The country has seen a steady increase in visitor numbers since 2004, with a strong likelihood of further expansion in the coming decades.

According to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism, 2.42 million visitors arrived to Colombia in 2012, up 3% from the previous year. July, August, and December 2012 were the busiest months for tourist inflows, with December experiencing a 10% rise in visitors year-on-year as a result of an influx of tourists from Canada, Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, and Chile. With 44.4% of the total arrivals to Colombia from South America, the continent represents the top source for visitors, followed by North America (26.5%) and Europe (18.7%). The main countries of provenance are the US (18.9%), Venezuela (14.8%), and Ecuador (6.8%), followed by Argentina (6.6 %) and Spain (5.6%). El Dorado Airport in Bogotá is the main point of entry into the country, accounting for 68.3% of total foreign visitor arrivals in 2012, followed by Medellín (7.2%) and Cartagena (5.6%).

Colombia's security has drastically improved since 2002, when the government launched a coordinated offensive against the country's insurgency groups. Since President Santos took office in 2010, the influence of these groups has continued to wane. Furthermore, Colombia has been putting a great effort into promoting its image over the past decade through marketing campaigns and slogans such as “The risk is that you may want to stay," and “Colombia is passion." According to Claudia Hoyos, General Manager of Marca País Colombia, the institution responsible for developing the national brand, “The Santos administration is aiming to take advantage of the development the country has undergone to make a qualitative leap and demonstrate how our society has risen from the ashes of a difficult past, and, above all, what it has to offer the world."

The interest in building hotels and improving the existent infrastructure has been notable in recent years, with hotel chains such as the Hilton, Marriott, Holiday Inn, NH, Sonesta, and Best Western opening new hotels, particularly in Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín. During the first trimester of 2012, the areas designated for hotels grew 45.5%, increasing from 33,607 sqm to 48,907 sqm. In the past four years, 585,509 sqm has been designated for hotel construction, with 2010 showing the highest growth, at 78.1%. During the first five months of 2012, four cities recorded the most amount of space dedicated to the tourism sector: Bogotá registered 19,998 sqm of new space for hotels, while the city of Valle del Cauca was allocated 19,316 sqm, Risaralda rose by 15,883 sqm, and Bolívar set aside 15,321 sqm.

HELP FROM THE TOP

The Santos administration has ambitious plans to attract 4 million international travelers in 2014, raising the sector's revenues to $4 billion while at the same time continuing to transform Colombia into a world-class destination. To this end, the Productive Transformation Program (PTP) aims to strengthen the industry's foreign language skills and business development activities, as well as its regulatory environment, infrastructure, sustainability, innovation, competitiveness, and productivity. Furthermore, the PTP is designed to make Colombia into a world leader in health tourism by 2032 through a plan developed in conjunction with the private sector. Health tourism has great potential for growth, and is expected to generate revenues in excess of $6 billion in 2013, with a value proposition based on competitive costs, high quality, and innovation in service provision. According to estimates for the PTP program, the industry's exports reached $140 million in 2012.

THE BEAUTY OF NATURE

Another potential driver of Colombia's tourism industry is nature and ecotourism. Colombia's geographic richness, biodiversity, and natural resources position it advantageously in this regard. It is one of the most biodiverse countries per square kilometer in the world, and is considered number one in terms of the number of bird and butterfly species. With its 56 national natural parks, covering 12% of the country's territory, and extensive wetlands, forests, jungles, and voluminous rivers, Colombia is positioned to transform itself into a premier tourism destination at the heart of the Americas. According to government estimates released in 2012, close to 260,000 visitors entered the country for ecotourism, with an average spending per person of €2,000 over a 15-day period of stay.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the PTP recently presented a plan that will serve as a roadmap for public-private efforts over the next 20 years. The aim is to strengthen ecotourism in protected areas, which include national, regional, and local nature reserves; develop the subsectors of adventure tourism and rural tourism; promote specialized products such as bird watching, whale watching, and diving; and engage civil society in each of these tasks.

MICE IS NICE

Although Colombia is only the 32nd-ranked MICE tourism destination in the world, its potential for success in the corporate segment remains high. The Colombian business tourism offering includes places such as Cartagena de Indias, Santa Marta, San Andrés, Bogotá, Medellín, the Coffee Triangle, and Cali, all equipped with the best technology and infrastructure to host important world-class congresses and conventions. According to the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), Colombia was the fourth in Latin America in terms of the number of international events in 2011, with a total of 113. Domestically, Bogotá achieved the ranking of first place and held the position of ninth in Latin America overall. Other cities important to the MICE segment in Latin America were Cartagena, ranked 13th, and Medellín at 28th. Previous conferences include the 33rd Interamerican Congress of Psychology (SIP), the XXI Latin American Transplant Congress, and Colombiamoda. Among the many events lined up for 2013 are the Cruise Conference and Trade Show, one of the most important meetings in the cruise industry, and Routes Americas 2013, which will feature 201 airlines and be attended by the management of 128 airports. According to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism, the MICE tourism segment was the third most popular reason for travel for international tourists, and in 2011 represented 7.9% of the total travelers arriving to the country. In total, 124,838 tourists were in Colombia to attend an international event, which marks a 39.5% increase over the previous year. Medellín in particular, which was voted the most innovative city in the world in a competition sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and CitiBank, has gained increased global recognition. In the minds of industry leaders such as Gabriel Jaime Rico Bentancur, the General Manager of Medellín's main convention center, Plaza Mayor, the city is competitive in terms of costs. Medellín has also made a number of strategic sectors more competitive by generating value-added for products and services, fashion and textiles, health, IT, energy, and public services. But rather than competing with other cities, Plaza Mayor's focus is to contribute to Colombia's economic future. For Bentancur, “the aim is to further attract international events and contribute to the development of our country."