‘Come and feel the magic’ - Colombia wants Sandals

South American country, in tourism push, ready to roll out red carpet for Caribbean investors

BY JULIAN RICHARDSON Assistant Business Co-ordinator richardsonj@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, May 17, 2013

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MIAMI, USA — Colombian officials this week reiterated their desire for Caribbean hoteliers to invest in the South American country's tourism infrastructure, as they unveiled a new campaign promoting the destination as a fast-rising Latin American paradise.

Against the background of solid tourism figures in 2012, Proexport Colombia projects close to two million tourists visiting the country in 2013, more than tripling visitor numbers over the last 12 years. The State promotion agency introduced Colombia's new "Magical Realism" tourism campaign to American travel agents, tour operators and journalists across the region on Tuesday at the Loews Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida.

"Unique experiences is what we are trying to show you -- things that are real and unique," declared Proexport's USA tourism director, Claudia Davila at the launch ceremony.

"We all hope that you come and feel the magic," she said.

Among other amenities, Colombia boasts that visitors can enjoy walking through colonial streets with over 500 years of history in Cartagena de Indias, experience fine dining in the capital city of Bogota, or take a trip to the unique Gold Museum featuring over 3,500 pre-Colombian gold pieces.

But the country also touts white sand beaches and crystal waters on island territories, San Andres and Providencia. The South Americans are banking on these resources to help attract experienced Caribbean hoteliers to invest in resorts and boost vacation tourism on those islands.

"The first tier of investments coming into Colombia targeted the cities, with business tourism. But now we are evolving to more resorts and pulling services toward (vacation) tourism," Juan Carlos Gonzalez, Proexport's foreign investment vice-president told Caribbean Business Report.

"We are looking to companies and investors that have experience in dealing not only with business tourism, but resorts such as in Jamaica and Dominican Republic," he said.

One particular entity the Colombians have their eye on is Sandals Group, the Jamaica-based empire that includes 23 Caribbean hotels.

Carlos Gonzalez, executive director, Caribbean at Proexport, said "It's such a very well known brand in the Caribbean; for us to have a Sandals in San Andres, it would increase our position not only in the Caribbean, but across the world."

In addition to benefiting from attractive incentives for investing in the hospitality industry -- including a 30-year income tax exemption -- Gonzalez believes a hotel in San Andres would fit well with the Sandals portfolio and present a strong value proposition to the resort chain with the island's distinct Caribbean profile.

"We know what Sandals is looking for; they are mostly focused on the islands and the Caribbean concept. San Andres does not need to be marketed as part of Colombia, it can be marketed as an island itself, like the best kept secret in the Caribbean," he said.

San Andres is 435 miles from the Colombian mainland. With a total area of about 52 square-kilometres, the island is about two hours flight time from Bogota. According to Proexport, tourism there is still vastly domestic and has a lot of room for growth.

Sandals chairman Gordon 'Butch' Stewart yesterday acknowledged that he has received very good reports on San Andres, but noted that more research was needed on the area as a possible investment destination.

"There is no doubt that San Andres has overcome its difficulties, but 'come see me and come live with me' are two different things. Proper research has to be done when considering entering new markets," Stewart said.

"In recent times, we have had great help and protection from our own Jamaican Government, which in turn has strenghened our confidence in Jamaica enormously," he continued. "I think what is important for everyone to understand is that every country is projecting their natural assets as best as they can to improve employment and standard of living for their respective citizens."

Stewart, however, praised Colombia for its efforts to foster a business-friendly environment.

"I have business colleagues and associates who have found the business environment in Colombia very good," Stewart told Caribbean Business Report, adding that "The Government there encourages investment and the business community is serious, and places importance on accountability and transparency."

Once viewed as a crime haven, Colombia has been largely successful in getting rid of that tag and implementing economic reforms that have made it one of the world's vibrant emerging markets.

Colombia now ranks among the top 30 economies in the world and attracted a record US$15.8 billion in foreign direct investments in 2012. More than 2,500 multinational companies are now operating in the country.

Manufacturing, agro-business, business process outsourcing and tourism are among the high growth areas the country has identified going forward.

In terms of tourism, the country boasts an average annual growth rate (10.6 per cent) nearly four times the world average and among the highest in the region over the last 10 years. Visitors to the country from international cruise ships have multiplied six times in the past five years, Proexport said, with the country welcoming about 254,000 tourists from the cruise industry last year.

"Fifteen years ago, it appeared Colombia was on the verge of becoming a failed state," stated Christopher Baker, editor of National Geographic Colombia, during the tourism seminar in Miami.

The writer was behind the first tourism guide for the country from National Geographic. He noted that once the Colombian Government changed the perception of foreign tourists, more and more mainstream travellers have begun to visit the destination.

"Thanks to the efforts of two presidents, the focus shifted from terrorism to tourism," he said.





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