Last updated: 03:43 PM ET, Tue March 31 2015

Colombia Tourism Resurgence Places Spotlight On Historic Cartagena

Destination & Tourism | Brian Major | March 31, 2015

Colombia Tourism Resurgence Places Spotlight On Historic Cartagena

Photo: The walled city of Cartagena features numerous colonial-era buildings. (Courtesy of ProColombia)

Among North American travelers, Colombia has made a remarkable transition in recent years from off-the-radar crime hotspot to exotic must-see destination. An era of headline-grabbing crime cartels and drug wars during the 1980s has ceded to social, legal and legislative reforms that have made the country a safe option for a new generation of inquisitive and culturally curious travelers.

In their wake, Colombian leaders implemented an aggressive program of tourism promotion, placing renewed focus on the country’s outstanding historic, cultural and sightseeing attractions. While it offers several tourist-friendly cites, travel to Colombia invariably begins in Cartagena de Indias, a UNESCO World Heritage site whose centerpiece is “Cuidad Allmurada,” the city’s huge colonial-era walled city.

An array of restaurants, hotels and clubs, ranging from modest to high-end, can be found within the city’s walls. At night, sections of the walls are lit in beautiful tropical colors, and the many coves and ramparts are natural gathering places for residents and visitors alike.

Cartagena features 17th century fortresses, trendy beach districts, world-class museums and leafy plazas, attractions also found in several other cities around the country. We spoke this week with Luis German Restrepo, executive director of ProColombia, the country’s tourism agency, about the country’s increasing popularity among North Americans.

TravelPulse: How many international visitors did Colombia host in 2014 and how does that compare with previous years?

Luis German Restrepo: The total number of visitors in 2014 was 2,879,543. Of these, 2,051,918 were foreigners, 597,522 were Colombians living abroad and 314,207 arrived on cruise ships. In 2013 Colombia had 2,594,809 visitors; 1,832,098 were foreigners, 561,815 were Colombians living abroad and 306,694 arrived on cruise ships.

TP: What percentage of international visitors in 2014 originated in the U.S.?

LG: The main market for Colombia in 2014 was the United States with 376,410 travelers. This shows a 9.5 percent increase from 2013. Second was Venezuela with an increase of 14 percent compared to 2013, Ecuador by 11 percent and Brazil with a striking growth of 39 percent. Tourism to Colombia is expected to continue witnessing steady growth in 2015.

TP: To what do you attribute the increase among North Americans?

LG: Tourism to Colombia has seen a remarkable growth over the last decade. Hotel infrastructure, economic stability, investment and product diversity are just a few of the reasons Colombia has become a top-notch destination in Latin America.

Avid travelers have discovered Colombia as a destination located only two and one-half hours away from Miami (based on an average trip from Miami to Cartagena), with no seasons and no visa requirements. Once there they can enjoy activities ranging from white-sand beaches to adventurous places full of historic and magical experiences.

TP: How has air connectivity impacted travel to Colombia?

LG: Air connectivity has played an important role. There are 296 direct weekly flights from the U.S. connecting eight cities in North America with six cities in Colombia. In June 2015, American Airlines will launch a new route connecting Miami to Barranquilla and American Airlines will start flying between Los Angeles and Bogota.

TP: What is the picture with regard to hotels and resorts?

LG: Colombia has experienced a remarkable growth in hotel infrastructure. Major hotel chains like IHG, JW Marriot, Radisson, Hilton, and Holiday Inn are now present in the country.

Hotels set to open in 2015 include the Holiday Inn Express Bocagrande (April 30), and the Wyndham Santa Catalina, Intercontinental, Ibis, Hyatt Regency, Estelar Bocagrande, Sheraton and the Hilton Conrad – Karibana in 2016.

TP: Is the country considered a viable destination for luxury travelers?

LG: Definitely. We work with several tour operators that cater to luxury travelers. There are unique hotels specifically for the luxury market like the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara located in Cartagena. The property is a converted monastery boasting luxury settings throughout the entire property. In addition, the Four Seasons is set to open two hotels in 2015; one in Cartagena and another one in Bogota. Colombia also offers an array of smaller and themed boutique hotels, all of which have been converted to cater for the luxury traveler.

TP: Why do you think more American travelers are interested in visiting Colombia?

LG: Colombia offers new and alternative holiday experiences for enthusiastic travelers. Bogota displays the fantastic vibe of a modern city full of history and culture with unmatched cuisine and exquisite taste for fashion. Cartagena is a city full of magic with walls that evoke more than 500 years of history. The destination is well known by its enchantment and romanticism which displays traditions of the Colombian Caribbean.

In contrast, a region like the Coffee landscape embodies the main tradition of the country. The region is bordered by a mountainous landscape contrasting in the background with Spanish style architecture and filled with coffee plantations. This area is rich in traditions echoed in its crafts, gastronomy, and in fairs and festivals that preserve its rural folklore and heritage.

Colombia offers experiences which are tailor-made for each visitor, whether its eco-tourism, adventures, [its] rich history or simply amazing sun and beaches. The main areas of interest for U.S travelers are Bogota, Cartagena, Medellin and Santa Marta. Each city offers a fantastic array of activities that can be enjoyed every day of the year thanks to our tropical weather with no seasons and no hurricanes.  

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