Surge in safety, cruises lifts Colombia tourism

In a country associated more with narcoterrorists than sybaritic pleasures, leisure travel can be a tough sell.

But Colombia's climate is changing. Security experts no longer routinely warn visitors that if they stray too far from major cities, they might as well schedule their own kidnappings.

Foreign tourist visits are up from a half-million four years ago to 1.2 million now. Kidnappings have dropped by half. (Officials stress that tourists were never a target.)

Many credit tough measures taken by President Alvaro Uribe since his election in 2002. The capital, Bogotá, has shed its aura of danger. New investment in seaside Cartagena has rendered that city more free-wheeling and boisterous than ever. On highways, rifle-toting soldiers man checkpoints, but they seem more friendly than menacing, shaking hands and making small talk before looking in the car trunk.

The U.S. State Department's warning against travel to Colombia, first issued in 1990, was updated in June, noting that although rural areas remain "extremely dangerous," violence has decreased "markedly" in urban areas, including Bogotá and Cartagena.

Europeans, who generally are more impervious than Americans to such cautions, never stopped traveling to the popular hot spot of Cartagena. But Americans account for only 20% of foreign visitors to Colombia, and many of those are visiting relatives.

That's changing with the return of major U.S. cruise lines. During the 2006-07 season (September to May), there were 50 port calls at Cartegena, Santa Marta and San Andrés Island. This season, cruise lines will make 200 stops. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, which returned to Cartagena in April after a five-year hiatus, will make 43 calls in the next year among its three brands. Princess and Holland America lines also are stopping.

Though cruise passengers aren't as desirable as more free-spending overnight visitors, they can create positive word-of-mouth.

"They go back (home) and tell people, 'It's not what you thought,' " says Colombia's vice minister for tourism, Oscar Rueda.

Royal Caribbean did "due diligence" before deciding to return. "The cruise lines obviously are very cautious," says Maria Sastre, a vice president at Royal Caribbean. "(Cartagena) is a wonderful, unspoiled destination that has tremendous historical value. It offers the cruising passenger a completely new and authentic experience."

Elsewhere in Colombia, other tourist venues are up and coming. Among them:

•Bogotá will add 7,000 three- to five-star hotel rooms in the next three years.

•The country's first luxury eco-tourism development, in Tayrona National Park, in a spectacular seaside setting with views of 19,000-foot Sierra Nevada peaks, is drawing high-end tourists to a vast wilderness area near Santa Marta (four hours north of Cartagena).

•"Coffee tourism" is flourishing in the coffee-growing region south of Bogotá.

•The southernmost town of Leticia is becoming a popular jumping-off point for trips into the Amazon Basin.

Obviously, travelers shouldn't venture to some places — the guerrilla-occupied jungles of the south, for one. But, as Rueda notes, "there are places everywhere (that) you shouldn't go."

Meanwhile, the country is attempting to rebrand itself with the slogan "Colombia is Passion." The sentiment is aimed as much at its citizens as visitors, Rueda says.

"For a long time, no one loved Colombia — not even Colombians," he says. "Now, Colombians are again proud to be Colombians."

E-mail jeclark@usatoday.com