No More "Risky Business" in Colombia

Colombia, unfairly characterized in films and television as a lawless land of drug dealers and murderers and ostracized even more by the reality of a long-time internal war, is finally coming out from under the dark shadows of its past as a burgeoning destination where, “The Only Risk Is Not Wanting to Leave.”

This true life tag line has become a mantra for Colombia tourism entities for the past two years as the country struggles to convince potential visitors to Latin America that the past is past and that now, they can truly enjoy the country’s natural beauty, its compelling cultures and its incomparable colonial attractions in total safety and security.

The good news is it’s working because there’s been an 18 percent increase in visitors, excluding cruise passengers, from 2004-2009 and the reason we’ve selected Colombia for our 2011 Editors’ Hot List, a viewpoint shared by some USTOA tour operators, two of which have recently initiated programs to the country. “It’s definitely an up-and-coming destination, just from the volume of phone calls that are coming in,” says Jennifer Ferman, deputy managing director for Latour. “People are interested in the destination because it offers such a terrific infrastructure of beautiful beaches, wonderful romantic hidden paradises and national parks, all surrounded by incredible heritage cities and the UNESCO sites. They really like the combination of the culture and the beautiful beaches.”

Ferman concedes that Colombia has “…been a place that Americans were a bit afraid of because it’s gotten a little bit of a bad rap,” she says, referring to its past political and drug problems. “But,” she adds, “I think when they see more advertising, it will become more mainstream,” which, she points out, has happened to a lot of South American destinations over the years. “As soon as it becomes more mainstream or if they hear that a friend went—the word of mouth kind of thing—they all want to go and they all start calling about it. And that’s what we’re seeing now, more regular people are going, not just the adventure travelers.”

The company started this year with three individual sample itineraries—all Latour web and brochure itineraries can and usually are customized—but recently added a fourth, a 2-night Bogota by Private Car program that includes hotel accommodations and private car sightseeing that tours the colonial home of Simon Bolivar, Bolivar Plaza, Metropolitan Cathedral, City Hall, the La Candelaria neighborhood—the oldest neighborhood in the city—Nariño Palace, San Carlos Palace and the famous Gold Museum, all starting from $411. Another city tour—Bogota & the Gold Museum—is similar but spends more time at the Gold Museum for the same price.

On the Caribbean, Latour offers a 4-night Cartagena & Rosario Islands package, spending the first two in Cartagena, the “Jewel of the Caribbean,” where they’ll tour the famous fortress, old town and private neighborhoods by car with plenty of free time to shop and browse, before heading off to the Rosario Islands by boat for an overnight stay to enjoy activities such as swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving in the crystal-clear waters, sea kayaking and more, priced from $860. You might want to combine that with A Romantic Escape at Tayrona National Park priced from $1,520 that includes private transfers from Cartagena or Santa Marta, plus a 2-night romantic stay in a luxurious eco-cabin at the Ecohabs Lodge in the park.

“We’re going to put together a FAM to go there for next year,” Ferman says. “We work with a boutique kind of company called Colombian Journeys and we’re going to definitely do something there to get our agents ready to sell it, which is why we do them. We’ve even expanded the packages that we had in the brochure. We’re now going to two full pages where before it was only one, so it’s getting more real estate in our brochure, which is a sign that we want to go ahead with it.”

Goway Travel is still another USTOA tour operator that sees a huge potential in Colombia and for 2011, the company is offering up some of the hottest spots in the country, but they’re not planning on expanding too much until they see how the product is received. Still, what they are offering is an extremely good cross section of what the country has to offer, from colonial treasures, beautiful Caribbean getaways, and rural areas that reflect Colombian culture, to the cosmopolitan city of Bogota.