Celebration of life

With Colombia's tourism industry growing by leaps and bounds in the post-conflict era, the Caribbean coastal region has become an exceptional example of what can be achieved through unity and perseverance.

Colombia’s tourism sector has experienced sound growth over the last decade or so, but the real boom came after the government signed a long-awaited peace deal with the FARC in 2016. More than 4.5 million international tourists visited Colombia in 2019, almost double the number in 2015. While hotel occupancy reached 57.8%, the sector’s contribution to GDP crossed 3.3%, the highest in Latin America.

Although Colombia’s potential as a tourism hot spot has been recognized by institutions and publications worldwide for as long as one can remember, the country is finally rising up to the challenge. In a recent keynote address, President Iván Duque stated that his government seeks to attract 6 million tourists in 2020. The government has ambitious plans for the sector, with the president referring to tourism as “Colombia’s new petroleum,” with the Caribbean region at the center.
A region full of great culinary diversity, historic cities, carnivals, and heavenly beaches, the Caribbean coast is the second-most visited region in Colombia after the central region, which is home to Bogotá and Medellí­n. More than 500,000 foreign tourists visited the Caribbean coast region as of August 2019, according to the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, and Tourism. In line with this growth, the number of available hotel rooms and the number of overseas passengers arriving on scheduled flights have more than doubled in the last 10 years alone. And the government is offering extensive tax breaks and other incentives in the region to lure investors capable of building state-of-the-art infrastructure.
The tourism sector in the region has largely been dominated by Cartagena (Colombia’s second most-visited city), Barranquilla, and Santa Marta. Cartagena’s walls and colonial architecture, the best preserved in the entire Caribbean, attract scores of tourists. In fact, tourism revenue has generally fueled economic growth in the city. According to the Cartagena Chamber of Commerce, tourism and hospitality represent 54% of employment and 59% of new businesses. What is more, with around 9% of tourists coming to the city for business, Cartagena receives the highest share of business tourists in Colombia. The Cartagena de Indias Convention Center, which was established in 1982, has positioned Cartagena and Colombia as an epicenter of meetings and events in Latin America and the world. Talking to TBY, Liliana Prieto, Holiday Inn Cartagena Morros’ Director of Sales & Marketing, explained how stakeholders such as ProColombia, COTELCO, the city mayor, and Cartagena Convention Bureau “have been working closely to further position Cartagena not only as a top destination for leisure tourism but also business tourism, especially MICE events.”
To the north of Cartagena lies Barranquilla, which is renowned globally for the Barranquilla Carnival, a four-day festival of extravagant costumes and salsa that attracted more than 300,000 people in 2019. Similar to Cartagena, the city has become one of Colombia’s top destinations for business travelers. According to investment promotion agency ProBarranquilla, 105 events have either taken place or been confirmed between 2017 and 2021. These events will bring in more than 100,000 visitors and USD45 million in revenue.
Santa Marta, on the other hand, is making up for lost ground with a focus on ecotourism, agrotourism, culture tourism, and adventure tourism. Known for its cultural and ethnic diversity, the city’s ecological wealth is evident in places like the Tayrona National Natural Park, which has been designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve; the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, a mountain range that features the world’s highest mountain above sea level; and Ciudad Perdida, a well-preserved archaeological site that is 600 years older than Machu Picchu. The city is also home to four indigenous tribes, thermal floors, and Colombia’s deepest natural port, which is generating a lot of interest in the offshore and cruise industries.
Given the depth of the region’s tourism offering, choosing between Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta can be tough, but travelers who have a few days to spend can cover all three, thanks to the government’s commitment to investing in local infrastructure, including Puente Pumarejo bridge, which connects Santa Marta and Barranquilla, and the Cartagena-Barranquilla