More tourists warm to Colombia's diverse attractions

Colombia has Canadians back on its tourism radar.

The South American country welcomed almost a million and a half visitors per year from around the world in the mid 80's, before earning a drug-fuelled and violent reputation. 

Since the early 2.000s, however, Colombia has slowly lured tourists back. 

From 500,000 yearly visitors a decade ago to two million today, Colombian trade commissioner Alvaro Concha says he is aiming for four million by next year.

So how did his country turn things around?

"We understood that we must address the gap between reality and perception," Concha said in a recent phone interview.

A string of foreign visitors were invited to the country in the early 2.000s and returned home with positive reports.

"Security is getting better, investment is getting better," Concha said, "and I've been told that Canadians now see Colombia as a very competitive alternative destination to other places they have visited, like Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba."

Concha is quick to point out that Colombia is not simply a "sun and beach" vacation spot. 

He recommends Canadians get their first taste of the country by visiting two locales; Bogotá, a cosmopolitan capital of eight million, and Cartagena, Colombia's "pearl of the Caribbean coast."

"In Bogotá, there is a lot of culture going on, a lot of gastronomy going on. 

By visiting surrounding towns, Canadians will get a good taste of our country.

"In Cartagena, you will find a very romantic city within the walls ... colonial houses and forts."

Tourism officials have ditched the old slogan "the only risk is wanting to stay" for "Colombia is a magical reality." 

However, no go zones still exist, and special security efforts are focused on tourist attractions.

For those drawn to a second or deeper visit to Colombia, Concha can recommend many other experiences. 

In addition to those beaches and towns old and new, the country offers Andean and Amazon eco excitement, coffee farming zones with their own culture; and cultural sites like the San Agustín Archaeological Park south of Bogotá  a spot Concha recently heard raves from visitors over; not only for its archaeological significance, but for its "well-organized" presentation.

Only three per cent of those who visit Colombia each year hail from Canada, but Concha said the Great White North joins Chile and Argentina as the areas of fastest growth in tourist draw.

Adventurous travellers will likely get the most out of Colombia home to both aguardiente (a sugarcane based drink boasting up to 29 per cent alcohol) and hormiga culona "big-bottomed" ants roasted and eaten with gusto in the Santander region. 

"They taste like peanuts," Concha said.

And for those thinking the trip to Colombia is just too far, Concha likes to tell Canadians that the flying time from Toronto to Bogotá is the same as that on a Toronto-Vancouver trip. 

Colombia or Toronto? 

The decision will probably be easy by the time fall or winter rolls around.

Berny Polanía

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