Latin America: The Latest Travel Hot Spot?

As some international destinations, such as Europe, turn a cold shoulder with their high prices and airfares, Latin America offers a warm welcome with more than a characteristic sizzle.

Besides affordable pricing, visitors to countries in Central and South America will find new airline routes, recently constructed hotels and immersion programs for leisure travelers. Combine all this with emerging destinations rarely considered tourist spots in the past, and relatively no jet lag because time zones in Latin America line up with many in the U.S., and heading south looks more attractive than ever.

Why Latin America?

In the past several years, many Latin American countries have begun to emphasize the importance of tourism to their economies and have stepped up efforts to improve infrastructure and promote their offerings to international visitors, particularly those from the U.S. Signs indicate the plans have been working.

For example, in Colombia, visits increased 10.7 percent in 2009 compared with 2008, while tourism decreased worldwide by 4 percent. Of the visitors in 2009, 23.3 percent were Americans.

According to Jaime Echavarria, director of ProExport Colombia, "The Colombian government has been offering incentives to investors in tourism projects, and is very interested in promotion and providing aid." The country is essentially working on three fronts: (1) to improve the destination with new hotels and services, (2) to talk to the tourism sector and promote tourism abroad, with the U.S. as its No. 1 market and (3) to change perceptions about the country's safety. The amount of hotel inventory has skyrocketed in recent years, with almost 7,500 new rooms added between 2004 and 2008, plus another 8,500 expected between 2009 and 2012.

Tourism has also grown in Peru, where visitors arriving from North America have increased by 36 percent since 2004. By September 2009, U.S. tourism showed a two-percent increase for the year, and fall numbers are expected to be higher.

International investors are demonstrating a commitment to Latin American destinations with new construction. For instance, many recognizable U.S. hotel chains, such as the Sonesta, Hilton and Marriott, have partnered with local development companies to open full-service hotels that offer luxury for less, for business and leisure travelers alike. And prices at four- to five-star hotels -- often $100 and $150 per night -- are often cheaper than comparable properties in other international destinations.

Sonesta Hotels was one of the initial U.S. chains to enter the Latin American market when it opened its first area hotel in Lima, Peru, in 1998. Since then, the company has added more than a dozen properties in Peru, Brazil, Colombia and, most recently,y Chile, with another three in the pipeline for the next year in Barranquilla, Cartagena and Bogota.

Marriott added its first hotel in Colombia, the Bogota Marriott Hotel, last October, and plans to open a J.W. Marriott in the same city in June of this year. According to a Marriott representative, "We know that [Colombia] is one of the most pivotal markets in the region for both business and leisure, and it's also emerging as a major source market within the region."

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