If you seek a monument to the security gains Colombia has made under President Alvaro Uribe's eight-year administration, the newly inaugurated JW Marriott Hotel here is a good place to look.
Improved security, the dynamic economy and some tax breaks are attracting the major international hotel chains that for decades shied away from Colombia. Uribe, who leaves office Saturday, officiated at the 264-room Marriott's ribbon-cutting ceremony last week.
"I don't have words to express my thanks for the confidence you show in Colombia," Uribe said to executives of Marriott and Grupo Poma, the El Salvador-based firm that owns the new hotel under a franchise agreement. "It means a lot to this great city and country that we can count on your expansion here."
This year, hoteliers will add about 4,700 rooms — half of those in Bogota, the capital — in new properties across Colombia, including projects by international chains Hilton, Sonesta, Inter-Continental and NH Hotels. Though that number is tiny in comparison with growth in developed countries, it's a quantum leap for this Andean nation of 44 million that just a few years ago was a global tourism pariah.
Tourists' perceptions were colored by civil war, drug trafficking and insecurity on the streets. In 2002, an average of 10 people per day were kidnapped and leftist rebels were at the gates of Bogota. The relatively few foreign visitors who did come were backpackers and "thrill seekers," U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield said in a recent interview.
But Colombia has witnessed a remarkable turnaround since Uribe took office in 2002. Backed by billions in U.S. aid, the Colombian military pushed rebels to remote mountains and jungles. Tens of thousands of additional police have helped reduce violent crime and kidnappings.
Although the civil war continues and Colombia is still the world's largest producer of cocaine, the levels of violence and physical risk have declined to the point that domestic and foreign tourists alike now believe it's safer to travel here. International visitors last year totaled 1.7 million, a 17% increase from the previous year, in contrast to overall world tourism growth of just 2% from 2008 to 2009, according to Ernst & Young consultants.
Cruise ships now disgorge thousands of tourists most days in the Spanish colonial city of Cartagena, where ship calls now average 35 per month, up from only three in 2005.
"Colombia doesn't have the image it once had," said Rodolfo Guillioli, a Grupo Poma vice president. His company opened another Marriott here last September and is planning a budget Marriott for Cali, Colombia's third-largest city. "Occupancy and room rates are high in Bogota, which makes it interesting. We expect many competitors to follow us."
HSBC Bank recently ranked Colombia among a generation of up-and-coming emerging economies known as the CIVETS — an acronym formed by the initials for Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa. These countries boast large populations, political stability and growing economies.
The dynamism of Colombia's economy, fueled by the boom in natural resources including coal, petroleum and coffee, is luring more business travelers, said Luz Jaramillo, Ernst & Young managing partner in Colombia. A special 20-year income tax exemption for new hotels that Colombia approved to counter the effect of the global financial crisis has been an important incentive.
Colombia has gained in attraction by comparison with neighboring leftist Latin American nations, particularly Venezuela, where the socialist government of President Hugo Chavez has spooked investors by taking over dozens of foreign oil, telecommunication and retail companies in recent years.
"Here no hatred has been planted against investment. To the contrary, here my countrymen have developed affection in our hearts for investment because it builds social cohesion," Uribe said.