Hot destination: Colombia

As violence declines, the number of tourists jumps 65 percent in three years.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When they set out from their native Norway to travel around Latin America, it didn't occur to Silje Klokk and Tarjei Hueem to include Colombia - long considered South America's most dangerous country - on their three-month itinerary.

But as they hit some of the region's more popular tourist destinations, travelers they met along the way kept raving about Colombia and downplaying any security concerns Ms. Klokk and Mr. Hueem expressed.

"From what we were told, Venezuela is what Colombia was 10 years ago in terms of security," says Klokk. "It seemed safer to come here." So she and Hueem changed their plans and visited one of Colombia's prime attractions: the ancient Indian ruins of Ciudad Perdida, or the Lost City.

Recommended: Think you know Colombia? Take our quiz.

Tucked into the lush, dense jungles high in the mountains of Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Ciudad Perdida holds the ruins of one of the largest and oldest pre-Columbian settlements in the Americas. But drug-related violence and general lawlessness - not to mention 40 years of war - have kept all but the most intrepid travelers away.

The government of President Alvaro Uribe is intent on changing that. The president has taken a hard line against leftist rebels, and there has been a 78 percent drop in kidnappings since Mr. Uribe took office in 2002. Looking to cash in on that, Mr. Uribe's government has begun to promote Colombia as one of the world's hottest new tourist destinations.

Already, the arrival of foreign visitors to Colombia has jumped 65 percent since 2002, to 925,000 last year, according to Carlos Alberto Zarruk, Colombia's deputy minister for business development, who oversees tourism.

This is still a mere fraction of the 20 million tourists who flock every year to Mexico, Latin America's top tourist destination. But it surpasses neighboring Ecuador, which attracted just over 860,000 visitors last year.

Travel guides are taking notice of the trend. The Lonely Planet travel guides, for instance, picked Colombia as one of the 10 top travel hotspots for 2006.

"The security situation has changed, and perhaps more important, the perception of the security situation has changed, which is fundamental for foreign tourists to come to Colombia," Mr. Zarruk says, adding that officials would like to see the number of tourists double this year to 2 million. "Colombia should see many millions of tourists a year."

In order to encourage that, Colombia recently launched a campaign with the slogan, "Colombia is Passion." The goal is to change the country's image abroad by inviting media, celebrities, and politicians to experience the country's positive aspects first hand. In April, the government invited 130 tour operators, airline, and cruise line executives to visit. And event organizers from the United States, Europe, and Latin America will participate in a tourism industry fair in Bogota.

Steve Hodel of Tico Travel agency, which is based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says that after visiting several Colombian cities and meeting with local tourism entrepreneurs, he would begin to recommend to his clients some parts of Colombia. But others would stay off limits. "I think I can sell Cartagena and Leticia," Mr. Hodel says, referring to the colonial walled city on Colombia's northern coast and the gateway city to the Amazon basin. But, he says, "People would think I was crazy if I offered them Medellín" - the city once home to a notorious drug cartel of the same name.

Meanwhile, the government is preparing for an uptick in tourists. Hoteliers have been offered tax breaks for building new hotels or renovating old ones, and projects are under way to accommodate cruise passengers as Uribe lobbies for more cruise lines to include the Caribbean cities of Cartagena and Santa Marta on their ports of call.

The effort is paying off. Last week, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines announced plans to begin to include Cartagena on its itineraries for 2007.

Santa Marta is more problematic. Many of its attractions, including the Lost City, are reachable only after long, bumpy bus rides and strenuous hikes, which city officials say is not the kind of day trip most cruise ship passengers are willing to undertake.

The city is now working on blueprints for cable-car systems that could get day-trippers off the boat and to the beautiful beaches and Indian villages of Tayrona Park in 30 minutes, or up on one of the peaks of the Sierra Nevada in 40 minutes. Plans for a cable car up to the Lost City have been scrapped, for now, following protests from the Kogi Indians, who care for the ruins.

The protests serve as a reminder that Colombia is not quite ready for the mainstream sun-and-fun tourist.

"But it's a destination that, five years from now, could be firmly in the mainstream," says Brice Gosnell, Lonely Planet's regional publishing manager for the Americas. Still, Lonely Planet's website displays this warning: "While risks to foreigners are minimal, kidnapping and homicide rates in Colombia still remain high.... Areas to avoid include Chocó, Putumayo and anywhere east of the Andes." Those areas still see a great deal of rebel activity, and occasional combat between the guerrillas and government forces. However, Colombia's homicide rates have fallen considerably in the past five years, from 61 to 38 per 100,000.

Venezuela's rates, meanwhile, nearly doubled between 1995 and 2003, the last year for which official figures are available. In 2003, its homicide rate was 45 per 100,000, up from 20 per 100,000 in 1995.

The US State Department - which recognizes better security in cities - warns against rural travel. The British Foreign Office still tells citizens to stay away from the Lost City, where, three years ago, eight foreign tourists were kidnapped and held for three months by rebels of the National Liberation Army, the country's second-largest guerrilla group.

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