SEATTLE — In Nov. 2016, the Colombian government and the left-wing FARC guerrilla organization formally signed a peace agreement, bringing to an end 52 years of civil war. The conflict killed 260,000 people and left more than six million internally displaced. The peace agreement will potentially usher in a new wave of tourism and business to a country that has already seen steady growth rates in foreign visitors since the mid-2000s. An increase in tourism in Colombia also presents a golden opportunity for U.S. companies hoping to grow their businesses overseas.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, violence and civil unrest made Colombia an unattractive destination for tourists. At the turn of the millennium, Colombia’s homicide rate was the highest in Latin America at 66.5 per 100,000 people. By 2016, the homicide rate was 24.4 per 100,000 — the lowest rate since 1974. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, increased political stability and a decline in the threat from armed revolutionary groups such as the FARC have resulted in the sharp decline in homicides.
Tourism in Colombia has grown rapidly since the mid-2000s. According to the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, foreign visitors spent a record-breaking $5.7 billion in 2016. Tourism revenues have almost doubled since 2010 and are up a staggering 650 percent from 1995. The increase in tourism revenues and the positive political and economic developments in Colombia have not gone unnoticed by U.S. multinationals.
Hilton recently signed a franchise license agreement to open Hilton Medellin in Colombia’s second-largest city. The project will be one of the largest real estate investments in the country this year. Hilton’s vice president of global brand management Shawn McAteer heralded the investment as a “significant milestone in a key region, and [a project which]elevates our overall presence in this growing Latin America destination.”
In recent years, major U.S. airlines such as American, Spirit, JetBlue and Delta have all increased flights to Colombia in order to accommodate the increased foreign visitor demand. According to the country’s Trade Ministry, Colombia received more than 2.5 million foreign visitors in 2016, a 13 percent year-over-year increase. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos set a $6 billion target for the tourism sector in 2018, but this target already looks set to be achieved a year in advance if current growth rates continue.
Hilton currently has 14 properties in Colombia, with nine projects in the pipeline, and Hilton is not the only big name hotel chain investing heavily in Colombia. In January, Hyatt Hotels Corporation announced that it was opening its first hotel in the city of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Hyatt Group president Peter Sears identified Colombia as a key market and a growing destination for business and leisure travelers alike. Sheraton Hotels and Resorts will also be adding to its portfolio of hotels in Colombia with the opening of a new five-star hotel on the Cartagena coast in March 2017.
Between 2000 and 2015, the U.S. provided $10 billion in foreign aid to Colombia to assist with military and social programs. In Feb. 2016, former President Barack Obama promised a 25 percent increase in assistance in 2017 to help Colombia’s post-conflict transition in a program dubbed Peace Colombia. Douglass Cassel, an adviser to the Colombian president, commented that an increase in U.S. aid was vital to ensuring the success of the peace plan.
Record-low crime rates, the prospect of increased political stability and continuing economic growth are creating a positive outlook for tourism in Colombia. U.S. companies are taking notice and investing millions of dollars to get a foothold in what could be the next big vacation hotspot. Continued national cooperation and multilateral assistance will hopefully ensure the success of the peace agreement and continue Colombia’s path to prosperity.
– Michael Farquharson