A BRAND NEW DAY

Colombia 2014 | TOURISM | REVIEW: TOURISM

With growth in capacity being matched by a rise in quality, Colombia's tourism offering is a dynamic proposition for pleasure-seekers and business travellers alike.

Tourism is now widely seen as the most dynamic sector of the Colombian economy. The Santos administration has enacted vigorous plans to attract 4 million international travellers in 2014, raising the sector's revenues to $4 billion, while at the same time continuing to transform Colombia into a world-class travel destination. Minister of Commerce, Industry, and Tourism, Santiago Rojas Arroyo announced 589,033 international arrivals in 1Q2014, placing the country on track to reach the four million mark by the year-end. International visitors to Colombia increased by 12% for that quarter. Of the international visitors to Colombia in the first quarter of 2013, the total had been divided into those who arrived by air and land (409,833), and cruise ship passengers (111,760). The first quarter of 2014, compared with that of 2013, saw a dramatic increase of 11% in travellers arriving by air and land (456,311), and an even more impressive increase of 16% in cruise ship passengers (130,722) entering the country. Of all of the international arrivals to Colombia in the first quarter of 2014, 18.4% were from the US. Average annual growth has been about 10%, which is one of the highest in the region, and nearly fourfold the global average. There is also a notable resurgence in domestic tourism. “The idea is that more Colombians travel around the country. Domestic tourism is crucial, generating substantial revenues and huge prosperity in the regions," explains Trade Minister Guillermo Plata.

Colombia's security has dramatically improved since 2002, when the government launched a coordinated offensive against the country's main insurgency groups. Since President Juan Manuel Santos first took office in 2010, the influence of the main rebel groups has progressively diminished. Increased security and a new optimism brought about by economic growth have had reinforcing effects on each other. The Colombian economy itself—and specifically its tourism industry—is well positioned to expand steadily over the coming decades. Colombia's variety of geographic settings, rich natural resources, and human capital potential position it strongly within the wider Latin American context, which is helping to draw visitors. Furthermore, Colombia has been putting a great deal of effort into promoting its image over the past decade with a concerted PR and information campaign designed to highlight the core strengths of the country as a destination. A great part of this drive to make Colombia a more appealing travel spot comes down to the professionalism, innovation and dedication of the people working in the sector. On a recent trip to Colombia, Mark Mobius of Franklin Templeton Investments observed these improvements first-hand: “I visited a company in the tourism sector. What struck me most was the system its management, had devised to focus on customer satisfaction and the key performance indicators, which were developed to track management proficiency." There are over 30 specialized training schools for the tourism industry, and customer feedback rates the Colombian service sector highly internationally.

A ROOM WITH A VIEW

More concretely, an interest in building hotels and improving the existing infrastructure has been visible in recent years, and current major brands with existing or planned developments in the country include Radisson Hotels, the Sonesta Collection, Melia Hotels International, Iberostar Hotels & Resorts, Ibis, Hyatt Hotels, TRYP Hotels, W Hotels, and more. The strong growth in hotels is particularly visible in major cities like Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín. Colombia offers attractive incentives to hotel owners, operators and developers for investment in the hotel business. For example, income tax exemptions are offered for 30 years to hotel services offered in new establishments or hotels that are renovated or extended in the period from 2003 to December 2017, valid from the start of operations. Luis Fernando Rosas Londoño, General Director, Instituto Distrital de Turismo (IDT) of Bogotá, explains how this growth is having knock on effects throughout local economies; “The number of tour operators has almost doubled in six years up to more than 5,500 (from 3,800 in 2007). According to our reports, these operators have created over 27,000 direct and 59,000 indirect jobs, which have benefited hotels, restaurants, and other businesses. If foreign tourists used to spend two nights in Bogotá, I am proud to state that today they stay an average of four." It is estimated that of all the hotel rooms available in 2014, only around one third would be considered to be of four to five star quality, meaning there is still room for growth in the luxury segment, and recent investment has indeed focused on it. In addition, with both urban cultural life, and diverse natural settings, the development opportunities for the hotel industry are promising, and there are improvements being made in both urban and beach or countryside offerings.

WELL, WELL, WELL

Colombia is also emerging as a destination for medical and health tourism, with a number of distinct advantages. According to regional surveys, it is the second best country for health infrastructure in Latin America, partly due to its well-educated healthcare workforce; 3,000 physicians and health professionals graduate from college each year in Colombia, so there is an ever expanding pool of talent. For example, Colombia is a pioneer in the medical field of reproduction immunology; its doctors performed the first in vitro fertilization birth in Latin America.

WORK & PLAY

Business travellers are also re-discovering Colombia as a destination. There are currently more than 2,500 multinationals operating in the country, whose staff members travel both internationally and domestically, for pleasure, but also for work. For example, the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Tourism (MICT) noted that the number of business travelers that visited Colombia in 2013 had increased 51% from 2012. In addition, the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) ranked Colombia 28th in its yearly classifications for meetings and conferences destinations by country, and saw Colombia's ranking rise 22 places from 2006 to 2013. This is partly related to improvements in the national and international transport infrastructure connecting Colombia to its neighbors and points beyond. Colombia has always had an excellent geographical location for visitors; it has both Atlantic and Pacific coasts and is conveniently located for travellers from both North and South America. An “open skies" agreement between Colombia and the US is scheduled to begin shortly which could result in Colombia becoming an important hub for Latin American airlines. The number of visitors from international cruise ships has multiplied almost sixfold in since 2009. There are important tourist terminals for cruise ships at the coastal resorts of Cartagena, Santa Marta, and San Andrés and the beaches, especially at Santa Marta, have been given high praise in the international press. The future for Colombian tourism seems very bright indeed. In 2010, the New York Times named Colombia the second best tourist destination in the world, and it has won no less than 12 UNESCO world heritage awards. If the peace process continues to make progress, and the economy sustains its robust growth, the investment that the government and private sector have made into attracting visitors will continue to reap dividends. Tourism Minister Santiago Rojas Arroyo describes the future thus, “Our faith in this sector allows us to target the four million visitor per year mark. We will implement actions to create unique and differentiated tourism experiences for our visitors and position as many Colombian destinations as possible as top tourism venues in the international arena. Nowadays, the tourism industry generates 1.6 million jobs, and through our ambitious strategy we expect to increase this and other metrics within the sector."