A (Tourism) Tale of Two Countries

While the destinations drawing the biggest vacation audience in South America continue to be the “golden triangle” – Peru, Argentina, Brazil – it’s always fun to recognize up-and-coming players. We think there are two: Colombia and Uruguay. Colombia’s major and successful efforts to promote itself as secure and fun, historically fascinating and scenically stunning, is paying off handsomely. But if we listen carefully, there is a new buzz about the quiet beauty, grand comforts and good times to be had in the continent’s smallest nation, Uruguay. That makes these two destinations tops on our list of favorite places for you to book come 2010.

hail colombia! “Colombia’s back!” is the lead sentence in Lonely Planet’s newest guide. And no one is happier to agree than Jaime Echavarria, tourism director for Colombia, who spoke recently with Recommend and listed three new reasons why selling his country is easier than we might think.

First, he points out, “It is easy to get to Colombia and recently there have been some very attractive airfares, particularly from the Florida gateways.” By the end of 2009, Echavarria says there will be 29 daily flights between U.S. and Colombian gateways, including Bogota, which, incidentally Travel + Leisure pegged as “…one of 20 amazing places where the dollar still goes far.” For flights to Bogota, Avianca and Continental Airlines offer nonstop flights from New York; American Airlines and Avianca fly from Miami; Delta Air Lines flies in daily from Atlanta; JetBlue offers daily service from Orlando; and Avianca has daily service from Fort Lauderdale.

“Our second big gateway,” he says, “and the major tourist destination, Cartagena, is served daily from Miami aboard Avianca and from Fort Lauderdale daily with Spirit Airlines. Other nonstop flights connect New York and Miami to Medellin and Cali, and Avianca flies there five times weekly from Washington, D.C.” Launching on Nov. 13 is the first U.S. air connection to the “coffee triangle”—Spirit Airlines will fly twice weekly between Fort Lauderdale and Armenia.

Second, “Our accommodations infrastructure has increased dramatically with roughly 25 new hotels added in the last four years. And this expansion continues, for between 2009 and 2011, hotel chains from Hilton and Hyatt to JW Marriott and Sonesta, as well as many stunning boutique properties, will add 7,000 new hotel rooms.”

The director also says that, “Very special categories of accommodations are in themselves good reasons to explore new corners of the country.” He cites, for example, the haciendas of estates welcoming visitors along the coffee triangle that links the towns of Armenia, Pereire and Manizales, and the Ecohabs, a colony of 14 upscale cabanas—fashioned in the style of thatched-roof huts—that provide upscale lodgings at the gateway to Tayrona National Park.

And third, “The U.S. market seems just more receptive to the new Colombia. We have been right up front over the years about our security problems, and now that we have good security in almost every corner of the country, I think the travel industry, the press, and the consumers are accepting that message.”

Additionally, Echavarria notes, the country’s tourism sector reaches out in advertising its “Colombia is Passion” message, and it maintains a marketing and information ProExport office in Miami. “In cooperation with the private sector, we will continue to offer FAMs that back up our promotion of the whole country,” Echavarria adds, “not only what is familiar, but what is there to be discovered. And we’ve made a good beginning. Last year, more than a quarter million U.S. travelers chose Colombia.”

Climbing on the Colombia bandwagon is Latour, part of IsramWorld whose v.p., Etian Silberberg, welcomes Colombia back into the Latin America family of super-appealing vacation destinations. “While we have been offering upscale packages to both Bogota and Cartagena, new to our program are three options—all operating with private car services: a 2-night package in Bogota, priced from $324 pp dbl; a 3-night package on the Colombia Coffee Trail, priced at $1,036 and based in Armenia; and a 4-night Cartagena & Rosario Islands program, priced from $951.” Getting back to Colombia’s hotel expansion in which, without doubt, Cartagena leads the pack in sheer numbers if not room count, the favored quarter lies within the walled-in historic district, and the style is small upscale boutique inns, offering the most modern appointments within the precincts of restored colonial mansions. Sofitel led the way with its very beautiful and deluxe Sofitel Santa Clara Hotel, located within a magnificent 17th century convent, followed by dozens of historic building conversions from charming colonial to 21st century comfortable. Rates start at $345.