Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Welcome to Colombia

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Welcome to Colombia

Article excerpt

"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).

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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. …

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