Jan. 18, 2015

Rear Adm. José Alfonso Díaz Gutiérrez de Piñeres


Rear Adm. José Alfonso Díaz Gutiérrez de Piñeres

Executive Director, Cartagena’s Chamber of Commerce

"We are opening doors wherever we can."


A retired Admiral of the Colombian Navy, José Alfonso Díaz Gutiérrez de Piñeres is an executive of formidable experience, and is currently CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Cartagena. He is trained in Business Administration—MBA, naval science, resource management, strategic planning, finance and cost reduction. He is also an academic, columnist and lecturer active both nationally and internationally. He has extensive experience in business and institutional management, international relations, project management, conflict management, human resource management, logistics and maritime negotiations and regional integration. He is the Governmental Advisor in negotiating Plan Colombia.

At the end of 2014, the cruise ship MSC Divina arrived in Cartagena. What is the strategic importance of the Port of Cartagena?

This was the 46th cruise ship to have visited Cartagena in the past four months. The cruise season here begins in September and ends in May. And as to its importance, Cartagena is perhaps the foremost tourist city in Colombia. We, as well as the government, are trying to make the city one of the prime destinations in the Caribbean for MICE tourists. We are competing with many cities with great beaches, but our downtown district is our unique strong point. Concerning this specific point of interest, we are building hotels and resorts to open more fully ourselves to the world. Colombia has been in a difficult position in recent years, but Cartagena has always been an oasis. And now that the rest of the country is opening up, the pace has intensified. We want to be one of the main ports visited by cruise lines. Our goal is to welcome 1 million cruise ship visitors. Thus far, we have had 450,000, so we are essentially halfway there, and have no doubt that we'll make it. I myself went with the mayor, the captain of the port, and a representative of Procolombia to greet the ship. It's the biggest vessel to have docked here to date, and we always make a special effort to give a warm welcome.

How is Cartagena's Chamber of Commerce helping to support female entrepreneurs?

Of 120 people working at the Chamber of Commerce, around 60% are women. Before I assumed the role, three women had led the chamber, and we are working to increase the number of female entrepreneurs. A meeting recently celebrated the history of female entrepreneurs and vocally supported would-be entrepreneurs. Today, six ministers are women. We are always working to increase opportunities for women and, for example, one of our present lines of work is called “business hubs," an idea we adopted from Brazil. It is an associative method to help people who work in restaurants, hotels, and textiles or fashion, whereby we ensure that they share their load to speed up the growth of their business. For example, we help to connect those people involved in fashion with those in the hotel business, benefiting both sides.

What problems is Cartagena facing in terms of commercial security, and what solutions is the CCC proposing?

I would recount two major steps that we have taken in terms of commercial security. About two and a half years ago, we began to think that we were not as competitive as other parts of the country. We were in the lower reaches of Colombia's competitive index, and we began to work on that. We decided to create an agency to promote investment in Cartagena, and approached the mayor and the National Business Association of Colombia (ANDI). This marked the beginning of the group Invest in Cartagena. In 2014, we moved from the bottom spot to sixth place in the index ranking. The World Bank awarded us a blue plaque as the most reformed chamber of commerce in the country. We are investor friendly and pay special attention, not only international investors, but also those within Colombia keen to relocate their companies close to the port in Cartagena. Colombia has signed numerous free trade agreements (FTAs), and Cartagena has benefited a lot from them. We boast the most significant port in the country; 80% of container freight moves through Cartagena. We, therefore, encourage Colombian entrepreneurs to relocate to within close proximity of the port. We are also looking for the port to make changes in light of the fact that we are only 80 miles from the Panama Canal. That Canal is expensive, and we are looking to the government pressing ahead with the plan to open a channel into the Bay of Cartagena. We are also hoping to open an alternative channel on the other side of the bay, enabling us to become a feeder port. Not all ports will allow such wide ships, so we want to be a part of that opportunity. The Chamber of Commerce is providing technical support for the Canal del Dique, which will improve communications between the Magdalena River and the Bay of Cartagena. We would then be able to transport freight within Colombia by barge through the Canal del Dique. This is an example of a project designed to make Cartagena more appealing to investors.

“We are opening doors wherever we can."

What specific sectors are you trying to support by attracting investors?

In the two years of Invest in Cartagena, we have appealed to specific clusters. The first is the petrochemical industry; we have a large refinery set to start operations next year. We have already attracted companies here in the plastics business, such as Grupo Fenix. The second cluster is tourism. We support hotels, and over the past five years, we have added more than 16,000 new hotel rooms in Cartagena. We have welcomed high-end hotel chains such as Holiday Inn, InterContinental, Hilton, and Sheraton. Recently we received the international president of Viceroy, which is going to build Colombia's first six-star hotel. Four Seasons is also coming to Cartagena. We are also trying to ensure that Cartagena becomes a cultural hub of the Caribbean. We now have Art Cartagena, which brought with it many artistic and cultural programs. In January of 2015 we will also host our ninth classical musical festival. There is also the Biennial de Arte, mirroring those of New York and Sao Paolo, and for two months, the city was entirely given over to art. We also host the Hay Festival, and our cultural section promotes all of these events. While Cartagena is the main touristic city of Colombia, we had lacked an Expo center, and so a year ago, in association with the office of the major, we decided to identify a potential location. IDOM provided a study with different locations in three areas of the city and we have selected one. We hope to open the center within two and a half years. It will cover an area of 20 hectares, located north of the city in a free trade zone. We are currently holding a competition for the design project, which we hope to approve by June 2015.

What is your outlook for Cartagena's trade relations and what role will the Chamber of Commerce play in this?

We are opening doors wherever we can, and especially with our trade partners. We are also signing agreements with other chambers of commerce. For example, in 2014, we signed more than 10 agreements with other chambers, such as Madrid, Barcelona, Mexico City, and the US, to usher in investors. We are the owners of the World Trade Center of Cartagena de Indias, and collaborate with over similar organizations worldwide, attending events, attracting investment, and sending our members abroad to fact find, recently sending a mission to Korea. A leaning toward innovation is key to such activities. Our members can confirm that over the past three years, we have increased our services and budgets by over 153%. Meanwhile, the number of entrepreneurs in the Chamber of Commerce has increased by over 54%. This gives you a good idea of how our economy is moving, and how Cartagena has the second or third-lowest rate of unemployment in the country. The entrepreneurial future of Cartagena is healthy and will continue to improve. Some months ago, we launched a think tank within the Chamber of Commerce including people from a diversity of sectors. We sat down with the regional representatives in congress as well as members of the city council, as we all have to work together. This is what I mean by innovation; we are getting everyone at the same table to help us construct a better future for the city.

© The Business Year - January 2015