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Scenic Cartagena benefits – and suffers – as Colombia tourism takes off

It wasn’t so long ago that Colombia was synonymous with “narco-state” to many foreigners, and just about the only international visitors were “backpackers and thrill seekers,” as a former U.S. ambassador put it.

Tell that to the four giant cruise ships that recently docked within hours of one another in this Spanish colonial port city, disgorging 6,000 foreigners. Most headed to Old Cartagena for a day of sightseeing and shopping, jamming the narrow streets of what many believe is the best-preserved colonial city on the continent.

Many of the day-trippers walked the 16th century stone walls that still ring the historic center, and looked out to the Caribbean, perhaps imagining the corsairs of Francis Drake, the Englishman whose forces sacked the city in 1586. Others trudged to the top of the San Felipe fortress, or taxied to a monastery atop La Popa hill for the panoramic view. Or they passed through the massive, forbidding doors of the Palace of the Inquisition to see the instruments of torture.

“This is my first time in Colombia and I love it,” Ronald Sell, a Swiss accountant, said as he shopped for souvenirs in Las Bovedas, the converted dungeons that once housed slaves imported to work the Spanish colony’s mines and cane fields.

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The nation’s improved security, booming economy and rapidly expanding tourism industry have put Colombia on many itineraries, bucking international tourism trends but causing friction in this ancient city.

According to Ernst & Young consultants, the number of Colombia’s international visitors increased 17% last year, to 1.7 million, compared with a global tourism gain from 2008 of just 2%.

The visitor figure doesn’t include cruise ship passengers, who typically stop in Cartagena for just a day, spending on average about $110 each, according to the tourism office. During the last peak cruise ship season, running October to April, the city saw an average of 25 cruise ships per month, up from just four per month in 2004. Each vessel averages about 1,500 passengers.

At a news conference this month in Bogota, the capital, Commerce Minister Sergio Diaz-Granados said tourism generates $2.8 billion in foreign currency for Colombia, the third-largest source after exports of oil and coal. The increase in the number of business travelers has caused a surge in hotel construction in Bogota by the likes of Marriott, Hilton and Ibis.

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In Cartagena, the first blush of the tourism boom brought a profusion of small boutique hotels opening within the walls’ 7-mile circumference. But now, with an expanding overnight market, international chains, including Holiday Inn, Sonesta, InterContinental and Sol Melia of Spain, are building or planning a dozen big hotel projects totaling 2,000 rooms.

To illustrate Cartagena’s improved image and global profile, city tourism director Luis Ernesto Araujo mentioned the recent visit of PGA officials to inspect the Jack Nicklaus-designed Karibana golf course under construction northwest of the city. They’re considering it as a possible site for a tournament.

Not all Cartageneros are thrilled with the growth in visitor traffic. Taxi driver Gerson Torres said the windfall hasn’t touched him because poor regulation has allowed taxis to proliferate more taxis than fares, making his job less remunerative than it was five years ago.

Oscar Collazos, a novelist and newspaper columnist who has lived in Cartagena for 10 years, said the construction of new roads and other public works has failed to keep pace with the boom. Development has caused “urban and environmental disasters,” and land speculation has caused housing costs to skyrocket, he said.

“If I were a travel agent, a real estate broker or hotelier, I would say the rise in tourism has been beneficial,” Collazos said. “But I’m just a citizen who sees the city becoming every day more expensive, congested, and inhabitants having to submit to the law of the market without benefiting from it.”

Kraul is a special correspondent.


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