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Welcome to Colombia.

"ONLY FIVE YEARS AGO, this conference would have been unimaginable," Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez told an international audience gathered in Cartagena de Indias. The occasion was the seventeenth meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).


Cities around the world vie for the honor of hosting the organization's biennial meetings. The very presence of senior tourism officials in Cartagena constituted a milestone for Colombia in its efforts to attract foreign visitors. More than 700 delegates from 120 countries plus tourism associations, accompanied by some 200 journalists, converged on the walled city in November. Their hosts, meanwhile, lost no opportunity to showcase the tourism potential of Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that offers both a high level of security and warm hospitality.

Just a few years ago, travel to Colombia had practically come to a standstill. Foreign headlines focused on the drug trade and its attendant violence--hardly an enticement for prospective visitors. Even Colombians weren't traveling much within their own country.

Luis Guillermo Plata, Colombia's Minister of Industry, Commerce, and Tourism, explained that Colombia first began to attract large numbers of foreign visitors in the 1960s, and by the end of the 1970s, more than 1,200,000 arrived annually. But by 2000, tourism had fallen to half a million.

When Uribe was elected in 2002, the government began working to reverse the trend. At first, to encourage domestic travel, it organized caravans of cars to venture beyond city limits, accompanied by a police escort. Foreign business travel began to rebound, followed by a trickle of tourists. Now police escorts are no longer needed, and tourism arrivals are escalating to match the earlier high point. "However," says Plata, "that means we've lost 27 years of tourism development."

In his address to the assembly, Uribe stressed the importance of security not only for the promotion of tourism, but for the benefit of the Colombian people. Calling tourism an "industry of joy," he said the government has attracted investment by offering a 30-year tax holiday for hotel construction.

One success story mentioned by the president addresses several problems simultaneously, including rural poverty, cultivation of illicit drugs, and destruction of the environment. Launched in 2002, the program--known as Familias Guardabosques--offers training and support to families in strategic ecosystems, enabling them to produce alternatives to illicit crops. So far 21,000 families have signed on to this model of sustainable development, eradicating illicit crops and participating in forest management and local alternatives, including ecotourism. "Without terrorism we have tourism," declared Uribe.

Delegates to the UNWTO conference periodically shifted their attention from serious issues--such as crisis management and sustainable tourism--to the rousing entertainment provided by their hosts. The tourism-related slogan/Colombia espasion! never seemed more appropriate.


The setting, too, dazzled attendees: Cartagena's old city, a Spanish colonial gem protected by massive walls, all but surrounded by the Caribbean and imbued with a palpable sense of history. A bus tour introduced guests to the flower-filled balconies that line Cartagena's streets and delineate the wealthier neighborhoods. From the heights of El Convento de La Popa and Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, participants surveyed the various islands and peninsulas that make up the modern city.

Aboard the Galeon Bucanero, passengers enjoyed a seaside view of Cartagena as they glided past the port and marinas, and the multi-story buildings that border the waterways. Tours by land and sea also revealed disparities in income among the various neighborhoods, a reality not hidden by tourism officials.

As Plata is quick to point out, not all the country's problems have been solved. Still, the poverty index has fallen from 57 percent in 2002 to 44 percent today, with a goal of 35 percent by 2010.

On the last day of the conference, passengers from a British cruise ship strolled the plazas and lanes of the old city. Tourism officials report that the number of passengers disembarking in Colombian ports is up 92 percent over 2006, with the largest number of ships docking in Cartagena.

As the conference wound down, some attendees decamped for Medellin and Cali, names once irrevocably linked to the word "cartel" in the public imagination. Others headed to Bogota, or the islands of the Caribbean, or the historic beach resort of Santa Marta, adjacent to the immense Parque Tayrona. Still others followed the coffee trail, highlighting an emphasis on ecotourism.

Travel warnings in some countries, including the United States, still associate Colombia with narcoterrorism and violence. Plata acknowledged that his country still suffers from an image problem. "The reality is changing," he told journalists, "but the perception changes more slowly. There's always a lag between reality and perception."
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Title Annotation:!Ojo! on Tourism
Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:3COLO
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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