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Last Updated: Friday, 7 December 2007, 00:46 GMT
A new hot-spot for the tourism industry
By Marián Hens
Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

After 27 years of total stagnation, tourism is starting to flourish in Colombia again.

Dancers in Cartagena welcome UNWTO delegates
Now the country is safer, Colombia is trying to highlight its attractions

Marred for decades by drugs, lawlessness and Latin America's longest-running guerrilla war, Colombia's tourism industry is now awakening fast, and turning the country into a new hot-spot for travellers.

In historical Cartagena, Colombia's crown jewel on the Caribbean, business is booming.

Around the old city, handicraft shop-owners, jewellers and coachmen are more boisterous than ever.

Cruise ships have resumed docking in the colonial port, sending a clear signal abroad that, while there is still a great deal of violence in the country, parts of it are safe enough to visit.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines has returned to Cartagena after a 5 year absence.

Andrés Delgado and Erika Bruges
Travelling is now safe in wide swathes of the country
Andrés Delgado and Erika Bruges, eco-tour operators
"The number of tourists has clearly grown over the last couple of years and that's all to do with improved security", says Luis Caballero an emerald trader who owns a business in the heart of the city.

Overall foreign tourist visits to Colombia are expected to be up from half a million four years ago to 1.3 million for 2007.

The country is currently receiving more than $2bn (£967m) of foreign exchange through tourism.

'Travelling is safe'

Andrés Delgado and Erika Bruges, a couple who run eco-tours in La Guajira, an indigenous region in the north, say President Alvaro Uribe's policies have made all the difference.

"Travelling is now safe in wide swathes of the country."

"Soldiers monitor security in roads and highways, and we Colombians are really enjoying this new freedom of movement," they add.

Many here credit President Uribe's tough stance on terror for the improvements.

Figures are on his side too; since he took office in 2002, kidnappings have dropped 73%, murders are down by more than 35% and urban crime rates have plummeted.

"This country has moved from terrorism to tourism", Uribe recently told delegates of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) gathered in Cartagena for their General Assembly.

"It is a great joy to see that the tourists are back."

The UNWTO also delivered a clear message through his Secretary General, Francesco Frangialli, that Colombia now offers a safer and more stable environment.

"Colombia has to be seen by visitors as a normal destination where people have a normal life", he told the BBC at the closing of the Assembly.

Image problems

But replacing conventional perceptions of Colombia is not that simple.

Despite the growth of visits, Uribe's government is aware that in many parts of the world, Colombia still means narco-terrorism.

Dancers in Cartagena welcome UNWTO delegates
The country is using the slogan "Colombia is passion"
"Colombia's image remains one of the stumbling blocks for the development of our tourist industry," Luis Plata, Colombian Minister of Tourism told the BBC.

"Together with the travel warnings issued by most countries on Colombia, these are two of our main challenges".

Under the slogan, "Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay" and an annual promotional budget of over $4m, the Tourism Ministry has just embarked on a campaign to improve the international picture of Colombia.

The country is also attempting to rebrand itself with the motto "Colombia is passion", a sentiment aimed as much at its citizens as visitors.

The authorities are also pushing to stimulate investment in infrastructure by offering fiscal benefits to the private sector such as a tax-free period of 30 years for the establishment of new hotels and the permanent waving of taxes for eco-tourism initiatives.

The impact of tourism growth on the Colombian economy is already making a mark.

Fighting poverty

Unemployment is down from 20% four years ago to 10.6% this year.

In popular vacation destinations such as Cartagena, that impact has been even higher, particularly on the city's large Afro-Colombian population that lives under the poverty line.

"We are facing many challenges," says Minister Plata.

"Infrastructures are poor and scarce, and we need to improve international connections, especially air travel."

But he adds that the government is determined to push ahead with an industry that has proved to be a great tool to fight poverty.

"Tourism demands a lot of labour and not necessarily the most qualified labour. It has tremendous social impact," he says.

In the past, Colombia has not been a traditional hot tourist destinations even for the most intrepid travellers.

And that might become its strongest selling point.

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