Colombia set another record for international travel and tourism revenue last year, with the country bringing in nearly $5.7 billion USD from foreign visitor spending in 2016, according to the nation’s Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Tourism.
This was more than half a billion dollars, or 8.6% growth, above the $5.2 billion USD reported in 2015 and puts the industry second in terms of generating foreign exchange after the oil sector, which brought in some $10.1 billion USD last year, per the ministry. The two leaders were followed by coal ($4.6 billion USD) and coffee ($2.4 billion USD).
Photo: The colorful, walled city of Cartagena remains Colombia’s most iconic tourist destination. (Credit: Jared Wade)
The ministry noted that foreign tourism revenue has nearly doubled — a growth rate of 86.6% — since 2010, when the sector accounted for $3.1 billion USD in revenue. Going back to 1995, when Colombia was in the middle of the most dangerous era in its history, that number was only $887 million USD (inflation adjusted), according to United Nations World Tourism Organization.
President Juan Manuel Santos had previously set $6 billion USD as the 2018 revenue target for the sector, a sum that the nation now looks poised to reach in 2017 if the annual increase of the past two years holds. “These results confirm that the tourism industry has become a motor of development for the country,” said María Claudia Lacouture, Colombia’s minister of commerce, industry, and tourism. “The country being at peace makes it more attractive to come to Colombia, and destinations will be easier to visit thanks to the post-conflict transition.”
Overall, more than 2.5 million foreign visitors came to Colombia in 2016, a 13% jump over last year, according to the government. Travelers from the United States made up the largest percentage with about 500,000 arrivals. Europe, Venezuela, and Brazil the rounded out the top four in terms of tourists’ locations of origin.
Bogotá continues to receive the bulk of international travel, making up nearly half all arrivals. But Cartagena saw its percentage of the pie jump in 2016 to account for nearly 15% of international visits, per the ministry.
Infrastructure and Security Hurdles
Despite the ongoing growth, Bancolombia recently acknowledged that Colombia still lags even many regional peers when it comes to its tourism appeal. In a note to investors, the Medellín-based financial institution pointed out that Colombia fell outside of the top 50 countries in the recently released World Economic Forum ranking of global travel and tourism competitiveness.
“Despite overall concerns about security within the region, six other LatAm countries did make that list,” wrote Bancolombia. “For a country so rich in diverse destinations, such as the incredible Salt Cathedral, there is still much to do in order to take its rightful position.”
Mexico (22nd), Brazil (27th), Panama (35th), Costa Rica (38th), Chile (48th), and Argentina (50th) all made the top 50. In the region, Peru (51st) and Ecuador (57th) also outperformed Colombia, which came in 62nd overall worldwide (an improvement on its 68th-place finish in 2016).
“Combining the lively atmosphere with its rich natural environment makes Colombia a destination capable of attracting different types of tourists,” stated the World Economic Forum (WEF) in its report. It highlighted “the enormous travel and tourism potential of Colombia,” something that is reflected by its top-25 rankings in both natural resources and cultural resources.
Accessing the nation’s gorgeous terrain and lovely traditions is even made easy by Colombia’s “relatively efficient air transport infrastructure, which connects all domestic cities and the main overseas markets effectively,” according to the WEF. But the financial organization chastised a national ground transportation network that remains slow and outdated while also citing the “little progress” achieved in improving a business environment that is “held back by high costs to obtain construction permits” and an “inefficient legal framework.”
Most of all, the WEF pointed to the security risks still present in Colombia. “Colombia is safer than it used to be, attaining adequate levels of security, especially in the main tourist areas,” stated the report. “However, it will take longer before the peace process will drive down crime and terrorism fears in all areas of the country.”
Working to Improve
According to the Ministry of Commerce, both the public and private sector are working to improve this perception. A 30-year rental tax exemption has been enacted to foster hotel growth, and the agency says that 5,739 new rooms were added last year while another 1,538 were refurbished. In the previous six years, more then 35,000 new rooms were added.
The country has seen more flights coming online as well. Some 82 routes from 28 countries now operate in Colombia, which helped facilitate the increase in tourist arrivals last year, according to the ministry.
On top of the connectivity and lodging improvements, government-led promotional campaigns are also seeking to get the word out about Colombia’s top sites. While the coffee region and Caribbean coast hotspots continue to be heavily advertised, the tourism sector is now also looking to leverage the appeal of once-off-limits areas like the so-called “Most Beautiful River in the World” Caño Cristales and the Ciudad Perdida jungle hike that leads to the nation’s most impressive ruins.