Colombia Moves Beyond Drug Wars

By Matt Swenson, May 10, 2015

Alberto Cortes, meetings and conferences director for ALTA, the Latin American & Caribbean Air Transport Association, admits he was just being polite when he first listened to Colombia’s pitch to host an event in the South American country. Six years later, in the midst of planning his sixth conference there, Cortes is glad he gave the destination known for its long history of drugs and violence a chance.

“The media has been so good at telling what is wrong in particular countries,” says Cortes. “The fact is every country has its own issues, but Colombia has grown so much.”

That’s music to the ears of Claudia Davila, U.S. director of tourism for ProColombia, the country’s tourism department. It’s her job to sell the many skeptics who’ve read the stories about terrorist attacks and kidnappings that this is not the same Colombia they remember. She says Bogota, the capital, is safer than Washington, D.C.

Recent news bolsters her claims. In May, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a rebel group better known as FARC, reached a deal with the country’s government to curb drug trafficking.

“Security is not an issue in Colombia anymore,” she says. “The country got tired of the situation and decided to clean it up.”

The trick is getting international planners to see it for themselves. Familiarization trips are one way to boost a reputation, but nothing beats the likes of Cortes returning from a successful meeting, spreading the word and returning with his association.

Selling the group’s annual meeting in the historic city of Cartagena was a matter of asking airline officials to take a leap of faith in 2009, says Cortes. But he was confident based on his site visits.

“They went the extra mile,” he recalls. “They were very proactive and professional. They understood the way they can grow business is by raising the quality of service.”

That meeting drew 625 attendees, a large size perfectly suited for Colombia’s crown jewel of destinations. Medium-size groups of 250 to 300 people may be better off in Bogota, where a new convention center is opening in 2016, or Medellin, where Cortes is organizing the Pan American Aviation Safety Summit in June. It’s the first time he’s selected Medellin, where flowers bloom year-round thanks to its springlike conditions.

Knowing Cortes had already worked with Cartagena and Bogota, Medellin made its push. That, the planner says, is an example of how far the country has come. Previously, the cities were satisfied with local groups moving their meetings inside the country. Now, “they’ve realized they make a lot more money with international groups,” he says.

Davila notes corporations have noticed the improvements as well. Hewlett-Packard is opening a plant in Medellin. Hotels are booming, in part because of an incentive to companies that build a new property or refurbish an existing one by 2017 to do so without paying corporate taxes for 30 years. Four Seasons is taking over two boutique hotels in Bogota later this year, and, in 2017, will open a new property in Cartagena—which will also gain two Hiltons, an InterContinental and a Sheraton within the next three years.

The new infrastructure, upgrades in services and easy access to the United States—it is less than a three-hour flight and Americans don’t need a visa to visit—are reasons Davila thinks Colombia will emerge as a trending destination.

“How often can you go to the same place?” she asks. “A lot has changed. It has taken a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding.”

Photo Credit: ProColombia

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