First Free Story (1 of 3)

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When former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe introduced a tax incentive law over a decade ago that offered a 30-year exemption on taxes derived from hotel services for any hotels beginning construction before December 2017, a lot of global hotel brands passed.

At the time, the Colombian brand was still attached to the country’s previous role as the cocaine trafficking capital of the world, and all of the violence associated with that.

Since then, however, few countries have ever experienced such a quick turnaround in tourism development as Colombia, following years of civic improvements and security initiatives throughout the country. The global hotel brands are moving in now in force, and their marketing and distribution firepower is going to continue to spur the increase in international arrivals over the last few years.

By the close of 2014, according to Colombia’s Ministry of Commerce, Industry & Tourism, a total of 7,000 new hotel rooms will enter distribution, adding to the 15,245 hotel rooms in almost 300 hotels constructed from 2004 to 2013.

Altogether, 17 new hotels are expected to open in Cartagena alone by the end of 2015. The colonial city welcomed an 11.5% jump in international arrivals in 2013 over 2012, bringing Colombia’s total foreign traffic to 3.7 million visitors.

Based on those numbers, equating to a 7% increase in visitors nationwide year-to-year, Colombia expects to welcome four million international guests in 2014.

“There are a couple reasons behind those numbers, including first of all, we are very strongly promoting tourism, so that’s kind of a change for us,” says Claudia Davila, U.S. director of tourism for Proexport, the Colombian national destination marketing organization. “Two, Colombia is a very solid democracy in South America and it’s a very stable country financially, so that’s also why so many of the major hotel brands are investing in Colombia.”

The marquee hotel projects targeting both the business and leisure sectors include InterContinental Cartagena de Indias opening in December and the Sheraton Cartagena Hotel launch in June 2015. In 2016, the entrance of the Four Seasons Hotel Cartagena will deliver Colombian tourism into an entirely new luxury bracket.

Meanwhile, the scheduled opening of W Bogota in December this year is bringing a new level of sex appeal and global attention to the tourism and business events product in the capital.

“Ten years ago, it wasn’t a practical situation for many people to travel to Colombia, but that’s old news now,” suggests Davila. “Today, I think the world has become very, very small, people know what’s going on everywhere, and they want to see something different. I mean, how many times can you go to Mexico? Don’t get me wrong, I love Mexico, but everyone wants to experience new things. At this moment, Colombia is very trendy, it’s new, and there’s not a lot of people who have been to Colombia.”

For 2014, some of the recent hotel openings in Colombia include: the 51-room Bastion Luxury Hotel in Cartagena, part of GHL Hotels; Radisson Cartagena Ocean Pavilion Hotel on La Boquilla Beach; Cali Marriott Hotel in Cali’s Granada financial district; and Sonesta Hotel Pereira near Colombia’s vaunted Coffee Triangle district.

Magical Realism Marketing Theme

Last year, Proexport launched a new series of print and digital marketing media themed around: “Colombia is Magical Realism.” Channeling the spirit of local son and Nobel Prize-winning surrealist author Gabriel García Márquez, the campaign attempts to differentiate the Colombian travel experience with a deft balance of romance and intrigue.

The first two videos below are 30-second spots highlighting the charms of Cartagena and the Coffee Triangle.

But the third video is the most inspired marketing. It’s a testimonial by a Canadian couple who came to Cartagena and fell under the city’s magical spell. That sort of first-person reality programming strikes a more personal chord, and it helps further dilute memories of Colombia’s late 20th century history, while heralding the country’s dramatic colonial history.

“Cartagena is the jewel of the Caribbean,” says Davila. “It’s full of history of culture, with 11 kilometers (7 miles) of walled city that feels like it’s stuck in the 1600s. When you get there, you really feel that it is a magical place.”

Greg Oates covers hotel and tourism development / email:

Photo Credit: Rendering of W Bogota, opening December 12, 2014. Starwood Hotels