Cartagena is especially popular with visitors. // © 2016 ProColombia
Feature image (above): Cartagena, along with other destinations in Colombia, has seen a dramatic increase in tourism in recent years. // © 2016 iStock
When Matt Nilsson first told his family and some older friends in 2015 that he was moving to Colombia at age 26 to teach English, they were concerned.
“A lot of them thought I was out of my mind,” he said. “There’s a huge generational divide in terms of how people view the country. But when talking to colleagues, friends and people my own age, they had no concerns at all.”
Today, Nilsson serves as a Colombia specialist at Audley Travel, an upscale tour company based in the U.K. that recently began selling packages to the U.S. market. And if recent statistics are any sign, generational differences in how people view Colombia may be disappearing. Visitors from the U.S. jumped 30 percent between the first quarter of 2015 and first quarter of 2016, according to Luis German Restrepo, U.S. executive director for ProColombia, the government trade bureau that promotes tourism abroad — and older travelers are among those who visit most, he says.
“The U.S. is our No. 1 partner and top source for tourists, with somewhere around 445,000 visitors last year and increases of about 20 percent year over year for the past five or six years,” Restrepo said.
The number of international visitors has increased by 12.9 percent over the past five years, according to ProColombia, and Restrepo points out that this figure is nearly triple the 4.7 percent growth rate for Latin America overall, as reported by the World Tourism Organization.
Figures from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) are equally impressive. Money spent by foreigners in Colombia is forecasted to jump by 8.2 percent in 2016, as the nation attracts an expected 2.75 million international visitors by the end of the year. By 2026, the WTTC predicts that international tourist arrivals will reach more than 4.3 million per year.
Not to say that the news is entirely positive — at least according to some U.S.-based tour operators.
“The market, understandably, still has an overall negative feeling about Colombia and it will simply take time, sustained effort and sustained investment for the bookings to really roll in,” said Bill Robison, director of program development for International Expeditions in Helena, Ala. “If stability and continued promotion can be sustained, it’s just a matter of time. After a strong publicity push two years ago, we’ve seen fewer guests in 2016 and, if concern about Zika continues into late this year and next, we expect growth will be slow in 2017.”
Ignacio Vallin, senior destination manager for Cox & Kings in the Americas, reports more positive sales trends to the region.
“Even though this has been a challenging year for everyone, given the ongoing global issues, Cox & Kings still sees continued steady growth in sales to Latin America,” he said. “Additionally, we continue to see interest in Colombia year over year and expect an increase of 30 percent in Cox & Kings’ sales to Colombia.”
What's Driving Growth?
Vallin says several factors have helped boost arrivals to Colombia, including increased airlift, favorable exchange rates, positive media coverage, improved security and “a better understanding and comprehension of what Colombia has to offer, along with improved infrastructure, which opens the doors to a wider range of traveler profiles.”
Colombia’s economic stability has also encouraged investment in infrastructure, according to Gerardo Murray, vice president for Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean for InterContinental Hotels Group.
“Colombia has experienced the most exciting growth in the region, with a number of hotel additions in 2015,” he said. “Colombia is indeed a hot spot for development.”
Hilton Worldwide also has a growing presence in Colombia, with three hotels — Hilton Bogota and two recently opened DoubleTree properties — in the country’s capital. Klaus Ziller, general manager of Hilton Bogota, sees a strong business environment as a key to the country’s success.
“The Colombian economy is experiencing growth, making this stable country one of the best places in Latin America to invest and do business,” he said.
When it comes to luring actual vacationers, however, improved security is one of the most important selling points, according to Thomas Doyer, general manager of De Una Colombia Tours in Bogota. The U.S. State Department has said that security has improved “significantly” in recent years, including in the cities of Bogota, Cartagena and Medellin.
“Colombia is not considered a dangerous destination anymore,” Doyer said. “And I think the peace negotiations between the government and FARC [a guerrilla group] is helping to change the image of Colombia.”
First-time visitors to Colombia tend to stay in one or two of the most popular destinations, but there are many more opportunities to sell throughout the country, according to Cox & Kings’ Vallin.
“Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena and the coffee region remain the best-selling regions of Colombia,” he said. “However, for more experienced travelers, cities such as Cali, with its wonderful markets; Villa de Leyva, with its beautiful architecture and rich history; and Tayrona National Park are all trending as well. Also, new destinations in Colombia that will be on the must-see list include the Pacific Coast, San Agustin, Cano Cristales and Amazonas.”
Doyer of De Una Colombia Tours is already seeing these types of alternative destinations rising in popularity. He notes that the multicolored Cano Cristales river, the ecotourism hot spot Casanare and the historic town of Salamina are among the top emerging destinations, as is the Pacific Coast. He says including the better-known cities is a must when selling Colombia to first-time vacationers, but that lesser-known places often create the most lasting memories.
“The major highlights in each itinerary are necessary to sell the product to our clients,” Doyer said. “But the other part — the unknown — is often considered the best part after clients return home.”
Colombia now attracts a variety of different age groups from the U.S., according to Maria Jose Abuabara, tourism director of the U.S. market for ProColombia.
“The number of millennials is increasing, which for us is less challenging to attract,” she said. “They want the adventure, and they want to experience different cultures.”
Cruises, which provide an important introduction to Colombia for many first-time visitors, bring mainly older travelers, according to Abuabara.
“It’s a different approach for each age group,” said Nilsson of Audley Travel. “With the younger market, they are up to speed with the news and the situation on the ground. They know it’s safe, but there’s still that adventurous, off-the-beaten-path sense.”
Colombia is also popular with experienced travelers who are comfortable traveling in the region.
“I find that Colombia is usually visited on a second or third trip to Latin America, after travelers have gotten their feet wet elsewhere and they know what to expect logistically,” Nilsson said. “That experience makes them more comfortable.”
International Expeditions’ Robison says that Colombia’s authenticity is another major draw.
“Overall, Colombia appeals to affluent, well-traveled people who are willing to put aside some of the historic concerns to discover a country still very authentic and not overrun by the masses,” he said. “While most first-time travelers may not venture out of Bogota or Cartagena, the fantastic hiking and biodiversity has made this a must-see destination for adventure travelers and birding enthusiasts.”
Vallin says that most of the travelers his company sends to Colombia are older.
“For Cox & Kings, it is generally the well-traveled 50-year-old-plus person with an interest in history, nature and culture — although we do have a family-friendly journey as well,” he said.
How Does It Compare?
Colombia doesn’t have the reputation that Brazil or Argentina has as a tourism magnet, and it’s not considered a bucket-list destination like Peru’s Machu Picchu or the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. But its relatively recent arrival on the mainstream tourism map is part of its allure, according to Doyer.
“Colombia is the ‘new’ popular destination in South America,” he said. “You see more and more tourists choosing Colombia because it’s new and different.
Besides, I think the bad image of Colombia in the past is now a positive factor. It makes it interesting.”
Robison also sees a potential upside to Colombia’s troubled history.
“Among most travelers, Colombia is perceived as more mysterious,” he said. “Few people know much about Colombia initially, beyond what they see in movies. Colombia can be positioned heavily as a multicultural destination, and travelers will love absorbing the colonial charms, music and food representative of the many cultures — 87 different tribes — that have influenced the history and evolution of Colombia. And, of course, the nature is spectacular.”
Vallin says that travel agents and tour operators need to educate clients about the realities of present-day Colombia.
“It’s often perceived as dangerous and underdeveloped, when in fact it is one of the safest destinations in the Americas and is very sophisticated,” he said. “Many visitors are surprised at the level of development and the warmth and generosity of the Colombian people. The most common feedback we receive is how safe visitors to Colombia feel.”
Stepanie Schneiderman, owner of Tia Stephanie Tours, singled out Colombia as an ideal destination when she decided to expand her tour offerings beyond Mexico, which had been her company’s sole focus.
“We began researching and scouting destinations in Colombia a few years back, knowing that it would be one of the world’s top emerging destinations and one of the biggest growth opportunities in the Western Hemisphere,” she said. “Without a doubt, it’s the perfect triangle of connectivity, promotion and press. Colombia is seeing travelers from all segments — from the well-heeled traveler who has seen the world and is looking for new destinations to curious travelers who want to learn about Colombia. Cartagena has beckoned the luxury travel segment, and even the islands of San Andres and Providencia are drawing beachgoers. There is something for everyone.”
Certainly, there is still room for growth. Some 230 tour operators offer a Colombia itinerary, according to ProColombia. But many big tour operators that offer South America itineraries haven’t ventured into Colombia yet. That’s something that ProColombia’s Restrepo hopes to change.
“We are targeting those tour operators that have not been to Colombia,” he said. “We need to bring them down to show them why we’re growing and why they shouldn’t miss the opportunity to offer this product to their clients.”
Hotel Growth in Colombia
- Marriott International plans to open two new hotels in Cartagena by 2018: the 210-room AC Hotel by Marriott Cartagena and the 201-room Cartagena Marriott Hotel.
- Four Seasons has opened two hotels in Bogota: the 62-room Four Seasons Hotel Casa Medina and the 64-room Four Seasons Hotel Bogota.
- The 373-room Grand Hyatt Bogota is scheduled to open in 2017 in the Ciudad Empresarial retail and business complex.
- InterContinental Hotels Group has expanded its presence with multiple properties. In 2015, the company opened InterContinental Cartagena de Indias, Holiday Inn Cucuta and Holiday Inn Express Cartagena Bocagrande. Holiday Inn Express Barranquilla Buena Vista opened this year, and Crowne Plaza Barranquilla is scheduled to debut before the end of the year.
- In February 2016, the 153-room Hotel GHL Collection Barranquilla opened.