The Colombian government is set to announce international tourism grew in 2012. Before you start celebrating, the real growth is way lower than Latin America as a whole, meaning Colombia is losing ground to its competitors.
According to the world tourism figures released by the UNWTO Tuesday, tourism in 2012 went up globally with 3.8% and 4.2% in South America. When purifying the Colombian government’s numbers by exluding Colombians living abroad, foreign visits to the country went up 1.3% from January until November. The annual numbers have not yet officially been released.
So, putting things into an international perspective, Colombia lags far behind on the global and regional grow rates. What is happening here?
As you probably know, Colombia has to come from way behind. The decades of armed conflict and political violence, and its association with drug trafficking doesn’t make the tropical country the most obvious tourism destination on the continent despite its fascinating cultures, exciting cities, and stunning flora and fauna.
The Colombian government, under both former President Alvaro Uribe and current President Juan Manuel Santos, have taken initiatives to change the image of their changing country. The international “Colombia is Passion” and “The Only Risk Is Wanting to Stay” campaigns showed an entirely different and unknown Colombia to a world that still associated the country with drugs and violence.
However, there’s only so much country branding and marketing a country can do. There are apparently other bottlenecks that have nothing to do with Colombia’s image.
For a while, particularly between 2002 and 2009 when the security situation in the cities improved drastically, the growth of travel to Colombia grew impressively.
You could naively thank the promotion campaigns for that, but most of it was due to the changing of the actual reality in many parts of Colombia, particularly in regards to a massive drop in high-impact paramilitary and guerrilla violence. The change of image was not because of successful but expensive promotion, but because the global opinion was catching up with reality, and Colombia’s reality simply wasn’t as gloomy as it was ten years ago.
Another important reason for this growth was because of the great B2B work of promotion agency Proexport and the several regional tourism offices. They were able to massively increase the number of business travelers to Colombia’s biggest economic hubs while the country was slowly integrated into the backpacker routes through Latin America and the Caribbean.
According to tourism officials in both Bogota and Medellin, some 80% of these cities’ foreign visitors now comes from corporate tourism, i.e. foreigners coming over temporarily for business reasons. The remainder seems to consist mostly of backpackers, novelty travelers and sex tourists.
Businessmen, novelty travelers and backpackers generally are the first to explore a country, way before family tourism picks up. These tourists are of vital importance to stimulate any possible further growth. It’s these travelers that go home and tell their friends and family about their impressions of a travel destination, either fueling curiosity at home or deterring travel.
The next step for Colombia would be to attract families. However, in my opinion the country is not ready for that yet and needs to improve its infrastructure and a number of conditions first to make sure the visiting tourists receive a quality tourism package and go home satisfied.
In my opinion, the following issues must be addressed before Colombia is able to continue to grow responsibly and sustainably.
Particularly Colombia’s biggest cities suffer security issues that directly affect a traveler’s comfort, freedom of movement and (sense of) security. While Bogota and Cali suffer particularly high street crime rates, Medellin has been suffering extremely violent incidents that in 2012 left two foreigners dead; One died in one of at least three armed robberies of hostels while another one was assassinated in what appeared to have been a criminal score settling.
Medellin authorities’ response has been mainly focused on diminishing the impact on the city’s image, rather than taking responsibility and promoting the measures necessary to prevent horrible incidents like this to occur again. At the same time, the city proudly presented an escalator in the violence-ridden Comuna 13 without providing the minimal security measures or informing visitors that the district is a no-go area. As a result, numerous foreigners were targeted when visiting the novelty. To be clear, the problem that needs solving is that gringos are getting robbed and killed, not that their deaths end up in the news or on travel forums.
Sex and drugs tourism
Particularly cities like Medellin and Cali receive a relatively large amount of sex tourists. This type of tourism strongly and negatively affects the relationship between locals and foreign visitors. If too dominant, sex tourism can impede the development of “normal” tourism. Bogota could work as a great example for the smaller cities because — while prostitution thrives also in the capital — alternatives to getting laid are abundant, creating a sustainable and healthy composition of touristic activities.
Drug tourism can also never be eliminated taking into account the availability and price of illicit substances like cocaine and pot. However, this type of tourism can be curbed by effective law enforcement and tourist education campaigns explaining the disastrous consequences the consumption of illicit drugs has on contemporary Colombian society.
Lack of urban attractions
In the case of Medellin and Cali there’s a great lack of urban tourist attractions that can draw and entertain tourists. In the case of Medellin, the fact that tourists have indicated that the metro is the city’s most attractive tourist attraction shows how poor the offer is. Without action, Medellin’s tourism will not be able to outgrow its “getting hammered in Parque Lleras” or “taking the Pablo Escobar tour” stage.
The Antioquia Governor’s Office has come up with a plan to make attractions outside the city like the department’s coffee region easily available for visitors. This is the perfect way of assuring a tourist is entertained and does not get lost or in trouble while trying to find an attraction.
Had Cartagena done more to offer alternatives to visiting Secret Service agents, it would be less likely to be the center of a prostitution scandal.
So, in order to restart Colombia’s tourism industry, it is vital that we honestly debate the actual tourism bottlenecks instead of blaming everything on a non-existent image problem. A tourist is no idiot and will research (= Google) his unknown destination before deciding to go there. If the tourist finds discrepancies between the government propaganda and verified media reports he will simply not go. If the tourist is falsely informed he might go home disappointed or get into trouble.
While this debate should be public, it is important that local governments and Proexport continue attracting and cherishing corporate tourists while putting more effort in what the remaining 20% of the visitors are doing and what stories they take home.
Does anyone else have ideas on how to take it from here?