REPORTING FROM CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA -- Colombia has made huge strides in reviving a tourism industry that a decade ago was moribund.
Improved security, a national “branding” campaign, favorable coverage by foreign travel media and generous tax benefits to lure hotel developers have sparked renewed interest in a country that a few years ago was luring only “backpackers and thrill-seekers,” to use one former U.S. ambassador’s memorable phrase.
Foreign airline passenger arrivals doubled over the last decade to more than 2 million last year. Cruise ship passenger traffic through Cartagena, the country’s leading magnet for both domestic and foreign travelers, has quintupled since 2004 to 400,000 a year. And the nation is witnessing a hotel construction boom by international chains such as Melia, Holiday Inn, Marriott, Ibis and Westin, which a few years ago were turned off by Colombia’s image of rebel terrorism and drug violence.
No city has benefited more from the tourism upsurge than Cartagena, a Caribbean and Spanish Colonial gem of 1.4 million that is the nation’s top attraction. More than 30% of the city’s workforce is in tourism-related jobs.
But Colombian tourism hit a speed bump in 2011. After years of double-digit increases, cruise ship calls in Cartagena are expected to decline 17% in the upcoming October-June season, according to the city tourism office.
Airport arrivals of foreigners have flattened out and visitor spending growth nationwide, after a burst from 2003 to 2007, has settled in the range of economic growth overall, between 4 and 5 percent annually, according to Camilo Perez, chief economist for Banco de Bogota.
Though some factors are beyond Colombia’s control, such as higher fuel costs and cruise lines’ better margins in the Mediterranean, others are of the country’s own making.
Customer satisfaction surveys by some tour operators in Cartagena show disturbingly high levels of disappointment among visitors, a trend that could be stunting the rate of repeat visits, as well as visitors drawn by word of mouth. Just as sobering was the World Economic Forum’s global tourism study issued this year that ranked Colombia a lackluster 77th among world destinations and a dismal 13th among Caribbean and Latin American tourist destination countries in terms of competitiveness.
Visitors complain of poor signage, a shortage of historical literature, traffic jams and few if any public restrooms at major monuments, one tour packager said.
Suddenly, tourism officials are opening their eyes to a challenge equally as daunting as the one they undertook several years ago to buff the nation’s image and open foreign minds to Colombia’s assets. In a nutshell, the task is to turn the attention to the consumer and do a better job of making his or her experience a positive one. How well Colombia meets that challenge will determine not only whether it can grow, but even maintain the share of the global tourism market it has, said German Arturo Sierra, rector of the University of Cartagena, who earned his doctorate in tourism management at the University of Sevilla, Spain.
“Colombia has to stop improvising and design a comprehensive plan for tourism,” Sierra said in an interview at his office in Cartagena’s historic old city. “The plan has to involve all elements of society -- the public and private sectors and the communities. And it has to assure that tourists aren’t just satisfied but that their experience rises above expectations. If it can’t devise and execute such a plan, the industry will never go to the next level."
-- Chris Kraul
Photo: Tourists walk near the historic wall surrounding Cartagena, Colombia, a World Heritage site, in August. Credit: Ricardo Maldonado / EPA