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."

The Next Hot Tourist Destination

Hilton has numerous Latin American properties as well, and has recently launched an advance purchase sale this spring, with discounts up to 30 percent off hotels and resorts. Sample rates start at $144 at the Hilton Buenos Aires, and $159 at the Hilton Cartagena.

This expansion hasn't gone unnoticed by online travel agencies either. So far this year, Expedia has added 128 Latin American hotels to its inventory, which represents a 5 percent increase. In 2009, the company added 634 hotels, showing 28 percent growth.

It's no coincidence much of this hotel expansion parallels new air service. Major airlines continue to add new routes. To name a couple, Chilean airline LAN is adding a new nonstop to Lima, Peru, from San Francisco in July, and American added a third daily flight from Miami to Lima in February. However, it's the consumer-focused, low-cost carriers that tell the more interesting story.

While you might pay fewer fees on other airlines, self-proclaimed "ultra low cost" Spirit Airlines has been expanding aggressively in Latin America, particularly in Colombia, the past three years, and has been offering rock bottom prices. A recent sale lists fares to Colombian destinations for as little as $49 one way. Spirit's current Colombian roster includes flights to Bogota, Cartagena, Medellin and Armenia (added November 2009), and it plans to add Barranquilla this summer, pending final approval from the Colombian government. Spirit also flies to Lima, Peru, and serves a variety of routes to Central America, including cities in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, as well as in Mexico.

And, as part of its strategy to be the "Best Airline in the Americas," fan favorite JetBlue has been expanding into Latin America and the Caribbean, and is constantly evaluating new cities. So far, the airline has routes to Bogota, Colombia; San Jose, Costa Rica; and Cancun, Mexico.

The market presence of Spirit and JetBlue is helpful to travelers on several fronts. For one, the brand recognition appeals to U.S. travelers and reinforces the notion that Latin America can be affordable to get to. And, visiting friends and relatives from Latin American countries have more opportunities to come to the U.S.

But whether or not you choose to fly one of these airlines, new routes, particularly on low-cost airlines, tend to increase competition, keeping prices low across all airlines. For example, former Colombian (now Brazilian-owned) Avianca often has similar fares to other competing airlines, when factoring in baggage fees (Avianca allows one checked and one carry-on bag for free). Also, major U.S. airlines like American, Continental and Delta tend to offer comparable pricing. In a recent search for May fares from New York City to Bogota, Colombia, most airlines offered round-trip flights for between $450 and $500, including taxes and fees, and some of the best prices were for more convenient nonstops from Delta, Continental and Avianca.

Why Visit Latin America?

It's next to impossible to generalize about a geographic area as large as Latin America, but tourists are continually drawn to the region for a few major reasons. While it's the value that might initially attract travelers, it's the quality of experience that brings them back. Countries with more established tourism infrastructure, such as Peru and Chile, continue to offer cultural authenticity, and emerging destinations such as Colombia and Nicaragua give early adopters a chance to have first bragging rights and blaze the trail for others.

Colombia, once known for generating headlines about drug trafficking and crime, is truly a diverse destination that's becoming more and more deserving of a second chance. Here's how Echavarria puts it:

"If you want to see the Pacific Ocean, go to Chile. If you want to see the Atlantic Ocean, go to Jamaica. If you want to see the Andes Mountains, go to Bolivia. If you want to see the plains of the Orinoco, go to Venezuela. If you want to know the jungles of the Amazon, go to Brazil. If you want to see pre-Columbian cultures, go to Mexico or Peru. But if you want to visit all this together … come to Colombia."

Popular tourist areas include Cartagena for sand and surf, the cosmopolitan capital city of Bogota, and the interior mountainous region known as the Coffee Triangle.

Statistically, safety is improving, while tourism has increased three-fold over the past several years. Between 2002 and 2008, the total number of homicides decreased by 44 percent, and kidnappings went down 85 percent. To help manage perception, the main tourism organization has been touting the slogan, "The only risk is wanting to stay." And, Colombia's renaissance was reported in a recent article in USA Today, and the New York Times named the country in "The 31 Places to Go in 2010."

With large indigenous populations and a strong sense of culture, many Latin American countries are also known for their offering "authentic" experiences, Peru in particular. In its annual Country Brand Index survey, tourism research firm FutureBrand recently named Peru as a top destination for authenticity and history.

New hotel construction in Peru tends to be mindful of local culture and the environment, and many hotels pay close attention to gastronomy and local food offerings. According to Elisabeth Hakim, UK & North American markets director of PromPeru, the Valley of Incas, only 50 minutes from the city of Cusco, has been shaping up to be a big area for tourist development. She noted several hotels—including properties from the Libertador chain, Casa Andina, and Sol & Luna—that strike a balance between luxurious amenities and indigenous elements regarding design and cuisine, and that offer opportunities for activities like nature tours and trekking.

In similar fashion, Sonesta Hotels strives to maintain cultural integrity in its properties, and puts together packages for its guests that include city tours and beyond. For example, the Sonesta Posada del Inca Yucay, near Cusco and Machu Picchu, is set in a former 18th century monastery that has the feel of a village, complete with a chapel, gardens, and a handicraft market. Guests can also embark on a neighborhood tour featuring buildings by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in Brasilia, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Other Latin American destinations to keep on the radar include Brazil, which is likely to invest heavily in new infrastructure in the coming years as it gears up for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and Chile, which has seen an uptick in hotel development due to new casino licenses. The country has also passed a new tourism law that aims to further promote visitation in the country, with a particular focus on smaller communities.

The timing couldn't be better, since Chile is trying to rebound from the series of earthquakes that have plagued the country the past couple of months. Recovery tourism has been a theme in South America as various other countries have had to contend with the wrath of nature. Earlier this year, for example, Machu Picchu was closed for a time due to flooding and mud slides, though it reopened on April 1. Despite these challenges, visitors are usually welcomed by the local communities, which rely heavily on tourism for income, as well as by travel providers that often promote deals to entice visitors in difficult times.

No matter when you visit, Latin America offers a world of opportunity to travelers who want to step off the tired tourist track and keep their bank accounts intact. While I've highlighted several countries, there are plenty of others, for example, Honduras, Ecuador, Argentina, and the list goes on … that are ripe—or just about ripe—for exploration.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Anne Banas is the executive editor of SmarterTravel, as well as a columnist, and a frequently quoted observer of travel trends and issues. Anne particularly enjoys helping travelers find great deals to both popular and up-and-coming destinations. SmarterTravel provides expert, unbiased information on timely travel deals, the best value destinations, and money-saving travel tips.