A great deal is made of the fully justified – at times (added hastily before any troll jumps on board and starts droning on about the megadiversity here and the variety of birdlife!) – reputation that Colombia possesses and so in the light of the recent ANATO tourism fair here in Bogota and the launch of the new country “brand” for Mexico held at the Museo Nacional a week ago, there are seemingly endless ways in which Colombia can learn from Mexico.
We are all well aware that we can draw parallels between the mire of grisly violence in which Colombia existed during the heady days of Pablo Escobar and the well-publicized and no less shocking events occurring on a daily basis in today’s Mexico. Given such unfortunate and violent similarities one would imagine that these two countries would be sharing information and tactics, and I guess that to some extent this is taking place. High ranking authoratative figures have been contracted to leave their posts in Colombia to aid the police forces in Mexico and I am certain that there is a healthy two-way flow of information about the various warring groups in Mexico and their producers here in Colombia. But, aside from this, what more can Colombia do to learn from Mexico?
At the Mexico launch last week it was clear that everybody was on board and towing the party line. There was a clear message. For what we could see at the extravagent party in the Museo Nacional, personal politics were clearly left to one side as the Governors of various Mexican states were in attandance and prepared to talk about the natural, cultural and ethnic wonders found within their respective regions. This event was clearly a big deal and not once was there mention made of the “troubles” in Mexico.
This blog is mainly directed at the the tourism industry and knowing well Mexico and living in Colombia, I have been trying for some time to write a piece on this economic driver. Rather that permit my impatience to get the better of me, it now feels like the appropriate time to make some observations.
(For further insights into the tourism industry here please tune in to my Colombia Calling radio show interview with expert Laura Cahnspeyer.)
Clearly Mexico has benefited from tourism for decades longer than Colombia and enjoying – at times (once again protecting myself!) – a shared frontier with the USA there is always going to be a greater source of tourism on right on their doorstep from the hard currency carrying gringos to the north. Colombia can boast no such beneficial relationships from any one of her neighbours. Panama (no direct land access), Venezuela (no need to state the obvious), Brazil (Linked by Leticia and vast amounts of jungle this is hardly accessible), Peru (it’s too small a jungle border to count), Ecuador (too many issues to share them here).
However, we need to maintain a coherent focus. Mexico is, as I mentioned previously, on message. Their representatives and public were strongly pro Mexico and there were no excuses made. Sometimes I feel that the Colombian tourist board, once they have finished lauding the record number of amphibians found within Colombia’s borders, will then all too publicly apologise for the situation here.
1. There should be no more apologies.
We complain continually about the lack of infrastructure here in Colombia, the difficult geography and the lack of training provided to those working in the tourism industry. Regarding the geography and infrastructure, well, what’s the answer? Colombia is what she is and we should be promoting this. The rampant corruption that has led to the non existence of a national highway system is of our own doing here. The right people need to be voted in and kept in place. There is a national training system for people wishing to work as guides or in the tourism industry provided by the SENA but it is ridiculously out of date and not in the slightest bit in tune with what the international clientele is looking for.
2. Suck it up! Coming to Colombia is an adventure and no one is going to make this country their first long haul destination. This honour usually falls to countries such as Costa Rica, Mexico or Peru depending on your origins.
At the Mexico launch a great deal of thought (and money) had clearly been invested in how to best promote various regions. We were shown five or so 60 second videos promoting the Yucatan, Quintana Roo and DF to name just three. They were slick, they were very appealing and what seemed to be the underlying message was one of accessible exoticism and fun. There was no jumble of ideas trying to promote the whole country as if it were tomorrow’s calentao.
3. Be on message and have a clear and succint description of what is on offer. We cannot try and offer everything at once here in Colombia. Cartagena, Coffee, Archaeology, Colonial towns, slick urban centres, jungles and plains are all just too much to fathom and consider for a two to three week break. I’ve been here 8 years and not yet found the time to get to Villavicencio.
Tourism promotion here in Colombia strikes me as being overwhelmingly political. There is just too much meddling. (Just read any missive about SENA or Cotelco) I cannot speak for Mexico but in order to garner the most from this relatively new and powerful economic activity, we need to let the professionals lead the charge.
4. Push politics to one side and let’s work together altruistically so that everyone can gain from tourism.
Colombia has been very quick to cotton on to and take full advantage of short term touristic policies. The arrival of cruise ships to Cartagena, Santa Marta or San Andres has been heralded as a major step forward and while it should be applauded as showing an evolution in Colombia’s perception overseas, it is not the whole deal. While Mexico receives an untold number of cruise ships per year on both coasts, there was no mention made of this industry in their launch. There’s an obsession with numbers of visitors and while I understand the need for this, Cruise Ship visitors spend precious few hours on Colombian soil. If we are going to talk numbers, just imagine that Quintana Roo where Cancun is located in Mexico received 17 million visitors in 2013. Compare this with Colombia’s total of 2,5 million.
5. Have a clear and long term tourism plan and policy to help pull Colombia forward.
There’s an obsession with sweeping the past under the carpet and not addressing it. This may be controversial but I feel that it needs to be raised for debate. Every group or couple that I have had the good fortune to guide here and indeed guests to my hotel are more than a little interested in the contemporary problems found here in Colombia. Rather than building a tourism policy around this I feel that neither should it be completely ignored. Why is the Police Museum so popular in Bogota, for the Escobar exhibit of course. Why did the launch of the “Escobar Tour” in Medellin create such a furore?
So, there you have it, Colombia needs to push politics to one side and create a coherent tourism campaign, not as simple as it looks but certainly not impossible.
Have any thoughts? Help me add to this list…
My 2 cents: Do not forget the "realism" part in the current slogan. Often the expectations set are unreal not because of intent to deceive, but because the people making the offers do not understant how to make them, or are unaware of what tourists expect / are acustomed to. The "biggest risk" for Colombian turism is disappointment in the part of visitors. No more apologies. I would agree, but please do tune the offer to current global standards.
Very valid points Jorge. Thank you.
I'm an old mid-western US farmer who has been traveling to mostly western Colombia 1-2 times /year since 1999,to visit friends and relatives. I don't speak Spanish but always travel with a local. I enjoy your superb mass transit ,bus,taxi vans,and seeing the variety of
the cities,smaller towns and countryside. Just watching the traffic variations towards evening in Cali is fascinating as is watching people go to work in the morning from a hotel balcony on a busy street ,while having breakfast outside.The "tourist"attractions do seem somewhat limited because most don't seem very aware or interested. I've been following the sugar cane for fuel agricultural development in the Cauca valley ,but find it almost impossible to visit the production facilities. My attempts to visit American seed corn production in the valley has not been successful. Have visited the coffee promotion in Armenia and the PANACA Ag tour facility there (didn't see any other non Colombian tourists). On a visit to relatives in Tulua last January I was surprised to see a fresh milk vendor pedaling down the rowhouse street with loudspeaker selling milk that was both fresh and organic as I'm sure it came from cows pastured along the main toll road. A week later I was describing this scene to some organic farmers in Wisconsin.
I liked the 'El riesgo es que te quieras quedar' slogan. It turned possible expectations on their head in a humorous way that acknowledged the past but put a positive spin on it. It made me smile and it's also true! I think the diversity of the country is something to play on and when planning our trip I enjoyed watching the Colombian Tourist Board videos of the various regions that we planned to visit. Yes it takes a long time to get from one place to another, but the bus journeys are part of the fun. Something that is often missed is that it is a great destination for a family holiday – as my ten year old says – 'it's like having a different adventure every day'. You are right to say leave politics out of it – otherwise the debate will too quickly veer away from encouraging people to visit the country.
Nice to hear about it! If tourism is well developed, then Columbia would be the best ever place for adventurous travels!!
It's great to hear that Colombia and Mexico are helping each other. Only great things can happen when two heads come together.
The best of being a traveler!