“Colombia: The only risk is wanting to stay.” That was the bold motto of the marketing campaign launched in 2008 to kickstart tourism to Colombia. Confronting head on Americans' perceptions of Colombia as a dangerous country, PROEXPORT, Colombia's tourism, foreign investment, and export promotion organization, took its own risk: that of flaunting conventional tourism marketing strategies, which tend to avoid even the perception of conflict or problems.
“Colombia had changed,” Maria Claudia Lacouture, PROEXPORT's president, told Fox News Latino, referencing the highly publicized and prolonged drug war that plagued the country throughout the last three and a half decades of the 20th century. “The problem was that the world didn't know Colombia had changed. We had to tell them.”
Colombia’s image has long been battered by drug and war violence, both responsible for thousands of killings and kidnappings throughout the country. Tourists tended to stay away, and foreign workers traveled the country with body guards to stay safe.
The premise behind “the only risk is wanting to stay” campaign is to educate prospective visitors that Colombia is more than coca fields and drug kingpins, and showing tourists what the country has to offer.
She said since the ad campaign started, tourism has increased by 10% every year, in spite of global economic problems.
“We've been successful in showing reality. Now we have to decide what our next campaign will look like, and what we want it to say,” she said.
The recent US Secret Service scandal in Cartagena might have reinforced the perception of Colombia as a place where any vice can be satisfied, but Lacouture said the incidents appear to have had no negative impact on tourism.
“The number of visits to Cartagena has actually increased,” Lacouture said, noting that the colonial city receives the majority of travelers to the country. Most visitors hail from the US, Latin America, Canada, or Germany.
Colombia has implemented a large number of policies and initiatives intended to attract foreign investment in the country. Though foreign firms have long had a presence in Colombia's mining and oil industries, the traditional business interests of foreigners are diversifying, particularly in the creative and technology sectors, she said.
Is Colombia's image changing? Lacouture says yes.
What will its new image be? Time—and the continued influx of travelers—will tell.
Julie Schwietert Collazo is a freelance writer living in Havana.