Negative perceptions die hard. The February 2012 U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs’ travel warning for Mexico began this way: “Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism and business, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day.”

In contrast, the analogous warning for Colombia was: “The Department of State reminds U.S. citizens of the dangers of travel to Colombia.” Consider that, in 2009, there was one intentional homicide per 100,000 in Mexico, and just 0.5 in Colombia, according to the United Nations’ “Global Study on Homicide 2011.” In 2011, there were 1,327 kidnappings in Mexico, compared with 298 in Colombia, according to and a January 2012 El Espectador article. This equates to a 75% higher per capita kidnapping rate in Mexico. Colombia’s immense economic potential is still held back by a now-inaccurate image of terrorism and violence.

The greater Colombian economy — specifically its tourism industry — is the best positioned of any in Latin America to expand steadily in the coming decades. Its breadth of geographic, natural resource and labor diversity positions it advantageously. However, it has failed over the last decade to capitalize on this advantage through poor brand management, a misunderstanding of the importance of its international perception and a number of larger, strategic infrastructural challenges. Other Latin American countries, even some with violent histories, have better managed these challenges. Colombia can still transform itself into the premier tourism destination at the center of the Americas.

While the rest of Latin America has witnessed political and economic turmoil over the last decade, Colombia has excelled. Overall, Latin American GDP is forecast to grow at 4.1% in 2012, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-ordination and Development (OECD). However, The Economist and the Colombian government expect Colombia to surpass that average with 4.7% growth in GDP.

Geographic Richness

The country’s borders alone outline a geographic richness that is nearly unparalleled in the region. Multiple mountain ranges rise and fall across Colombia, including the massive Andes. In between are wetlands, forests, jungles (including part of the Amazon), voluminous rivers and plains filled with fertile volcanic soil. Colombia has the distinction of being lined to the north and west by more than 3,200 kilometers of coastline that is almost evenly divided between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, and provides paradisiacal beaches. This terrestrial and aquatic diversity allows the country to host the second greatest number of individual animal species on the planet. Furthermore, it is ideally located at the midpoint of the North and South American continents, putting the tropical resort of Cartagena just over two hours by air from Miami, and Bogotá under five hours from Mexico City.

Colombia’s most valuable resource may be its labor force. International businesspeople and nongovernmental organizations routinely describe its workforce as among the most dedicated, productive and trustworthy in the Americas. Universidad de los Andes Professor Connie Cárdenas de Santamaría noted that “Colombians — both men and women — are outstanding workers…. They believe in the power of personal effort as the road to success, and they are … very reliable.”  The World Bank ranks Colombia third in Latin America for “ease of doing business” (with labor quality being a key factor in that metric), only slightly behind Chile and Peru.

Despite these tremendous advantages, Colombia is known internationally for its violent history of narcoterrorism. Beginning with La Violencia, a period of intense political violence from 1948 to1958, a legacy of official and unofficial warfare through the 1970s provided fertile social conditions for the most significant cocaine industry in the world. Colombia’s coca crop became the mainstay of the country’s agricultural industry, growing alongside a constant and violent tug-of-war between political parties. The paramilitary forces of each political interest found allies and revenues from powerful, competing narcotics cartels that used the forces as hired guns. As happened in many other Latin American neighbors, the conflict raged for decades, and international media coverage ensured that Colombia’s global image was consumed by that conflict. However, the political and narcoterrorism violence has subsided significantly over the past decade and a half. The early 2000s saw 70 murders per 100,000 people. By 2010, the number had fallen by more than half, to 30 per 100,000, according to the UN.

The Competition

Colombia is not the only Latin American nation to face a challenging history of violence while attempting to build its tourism industry. Costa Rica, which experienced its own period of violent civil war in 1948, was flanked by the political conflicts in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras through the 1980s, which significantly prevented economic (particularly tourism) development in the country. Costa Rica — with competitive advantages that, like Colombia, include both Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, 5% of the planet’s biodiversity and extensive national parks — began to market itself as the eco-tourism capital of the world. By 1987, tourism began to boom and quickly became the largest generator of foreign income. Today, the country annually attracts some two million visitors who spend nearly US$2 billion. It remains one of the most competitive tourist industries in Latin America, but expansion may have reached its peak due to infrastructure limitations that are creating opportunities for regional competitors.

One such competitor is Peru, another country that has worked to overcome a negative image and shares many similarities with Colombia. Until the early 1990s, Peru was plagued by the rampant atrocities of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path guerilla army) but managed to harness its cultural and historic indigenous roots to build a unique brand that is the foundation of its tourism industry. According to Javier Game B., chief of operations for the Bogotá office of the Inter-American Development Bank, “Peru has done an impressive job of developing and marketing travel packages that appeal to a wide range of tastes and interests. You can mix and match everything from beaches to rainforest, from fine dining to ancient ruins. Colombia is still working to develop the right packages that fully display the variety of experiences the country has to offer.”

By way of comparison, the travel and indirect economy accounts for 14% and 7.4% of GDP in Costa Rica and Peru, respectively, compared to only 5.3% in Colombia. In contrast to their successful tourism models, and despite Colombia’s obvious resource advantages, the latter languishes in both absolute and relative terms. Tourism may not be a stated main objective of the Colombian government’s economic development plan, but it should be a priority, given the potential benefits for relatively little effort. Bringing its tourism percentage of GDP composition in line with that of its neighbor Peru, for example, would represent an additional US$7.7 billion for its economy.

Once the Colombian public and private sectors (or any parties interested in developing the native tourism industry) decide to commit to increased tourism, the first and most important step is relatively simple: realizing that violence in Colombia is no longer a problem. Rather, a worldwide perception of Colombia as being perpetually mired in violence prevents an evolution in the sector. If this resource-rich, well-located, mountain-Pacific-Caribbean paradise wants to draw the international capital influx of which it is capable, it must communicate the fact that it is one of the safest and most diverse destinations in 2012 and make potential travelers positively perceive that fact.

Beginning in 2007, Colombia launched the tourism slogan, “Colombia: The Only Risk Is Wanting to Stay.” According to Maria Claudia Lacouture, the president of ProExport Colombia, the slogan was launched “to address the lack of knowledge about the country and the questions that arose about the risks of visiting Colombia.” While this marketing strategy was executed in the spirit of confronting the major impediment to the industry, it was a gamble that was unlikely to be beneficial and certainly would not aggressively direct the attention of potential foreign visitors to Colombia’s true assets. According to Robert Fletcher, a professor at the University of Peace in Costa Rica, the campaign was designed to “encourage potential visitors to feel that they are at once both safe and at risk, a dynamic … central to the general success of adventure tourism, a market segment that Colombia appears quite eager to tap.” ProExport, the quasi-governmental marketing body charged with promoting Colombia, whether intentionally or not, most likely was “paradoxically” trying to show potential tourists the upside of Colombia while simultaneously attempting to give them a “thrill rush” of visiting a “dangerous” place. According to ProExport, the “Only Risk” campaign is already being phased out.

In addition, the Colombian government is attempting to combat negative, official, foreign government or organization classifications. As noted at the beginning of this article, probably the most salient examples are the U.S. State Department’s official consular travel warnings, which are typically updated yearly. Not only do these warnings serve as a primary source of advice for travelers who consult the department prior to planning a trip or visiting a country, but, more significantly, they have a massive “ripple effect” on the entire international travel industry and any other industry that is dependent on it. This can be seen when travellers purchase airfare through many of the major online travel agencies, which provide the warnings to enhance their customer-service experience (i.e., to give the impression that even a low-cost travel website is providing a comprehensive customer-service experience.)

Thus, Colombia is the recipient of negative advertising every time someone starts planning a trip there. This is despite the statistical realities on violence and kidnapping comparing Colombia to Mexico, a country whose tourism and indirect economy was worth US$120 billion in 2010 (or 12.7% of GDP), compared to Colombia’s US$12.4 billion (or 5.3% of GDP). Given Colombia’s consistently loyal diplomatic relationship with the U.S. since at least 2002 under then-President Alvaro Uribe and his proactive ambassador to the U.S., some observers wonder how Colombia continues to be cast in a negative light by the State Department.

Fundamental Challenges

Colombia has acquiesced and cooperated on drug eradication and military-to-military cooperation programs, and the two nations recently ratified the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Some observers suggest that the Colombian government, with the backing of a coalition of affected national and U.S. businesses, should lobby the U.S. government aggressively to correct its classification.

Three additional, more fundamental challenges confront the successful development of the Colombian tourism sector. These challenges represent an uphill battle for the entire economy and, as such, will require much greater long-term efforts by a broader coalition of public and private interests.

The ubiquitous excuse every pro-Colombian development optimist hears when proposing any type of project is “lack of infrastructure.” The country is, indeed, plagued by a remarkably underdeveloped or permanently stunted infrastructure across a number of areas. Most glaring is the mass transportation system. No highway system connects the major cities and regions of the country. Railroads are rare, and those that exist are incompatible from one span to the next. The two main transportation arteries have been so neglected that they are now impassible despite their impressive potential. One U.S. diplomat, recently transferred from Southeast Asia, quipped that it took four weeks for his household goods to arrive in the country by ship, but it took four months for the same shipment to arrive in Bogotá from Cartagena.

The tourism sector, like any other infrastructure-dependent industry, will reach an artificially imposed maximum when hotels cannot ship in sufficient supplies, food, building materials, etc., to keep up with the increased number of visitors. Entrepreneurial bio-tourism and adventure operators will be without guests when there are no connecting flights from Bogotá because there is an insufficient number of airports around the country. Despite widespread awareness of this problem, even the most astute and accomplished researchers on Colombian macroeconomics are unable to explain why the country historically has been unable to overcome these infrastructure challenges.

The second hurdle concerns the Colombian workforce. While considered among the most productive in the region, it lacks the necessary tools to cater effectively to a growing tourism industry. The young professional and working classes, while motivated and generally well-educated, are not being given the technical skills required to run the transportation modes, customer-service counters, hotels and attractions that will be critical to tourism expansion. For example, it is extremely difficult to find a taxi driver who speaks even a few words of English in the capital city of Bogotá. The country has just opened its first hotel training school and will need to make major adjustments to its technical training plan if it hopes to continue to expand its economy as a regional leader.

Finally, Colombia, like many other developing economies around the world, was severely impacted by the global economic downturn of the last five years. This difficulty is compounded for a sector such as tourism, which feels an exceedingly high elasticity of demand for a “luxury” good. As the global economy recovers and foreigners begin spending more disposable income on travel, Colombia will have an opportunity to be the “new kid on the block” if it positions itself well in the near term.

The two main entities in Colombia responsible for tourism promotion and development — ProExport (charged with marketing and promotion) and the Vice Ministry of Commerce for Tourism (responsible for policy and execution of tourism initiatives) — are already aware of most of these challenges and are taking steps to overcome them. ProExport, as noted, is preparing to replace the ineffective “Only Risk” campaign.

One extremely encouraging example of cutting-edge policy management exists within the vice minister for tourism’s office, where the departments within Colombia previously were arbitrarily given sums of money to support their own local tourism industries. This sometimes resulted in small, remote departmental governments — with no history of, or plans to develop, tourism industries — having disproportionately large budgets to disperse as they saw fit. Today, the vice minister displays in her office a detailed funding matrix that represents every department’s tourism development proposals. The proposals are competitive and must be well-developed and presented to the vice ministry to gain a single peso. Smaller, less-developed departments that are eager and capable of developing their industries — but lack the resources to make competitive presentations — can request assistance from the vice minister’s office to develop their submissions.

Colombia is a country of majestic and diverse landscapes, framed by an equally impressive dual coastline. Its natural resources are second only to its human capital. The country’s uniqueness promises unbounded potential in many sectors, as illustrated by the “buzz” of attention it has received over the last five years. Colombia’s overall economic picture, while not perfect, is primed for steady, strong expansion in the coming years. With all the attention from international investors, tourism could serve as a flagship in that direction, while providing increased domestically generated capital and foreign direct investment to further promote and bolster overall economic development. With careful brand management and wise policy formation and execution, the Colombian tourism industry should become the prologue to the most exciting economic development story of 21st century South America.

This article was written by Campbell Marshall, Alan Mangels and Dalton Wright, members of the Lauder Class of 2014.