Now Arriving

Colombia's tourism industry is taking advantage of the country's newfound stability to invest in infrastructure and make a marketing push into new Asian markets.

Colombia’s tourism industry has seen strong growth in recent years thanks to an ever-widening array of tourism options. Bogotá, long one of South America’s most important cultural and economic centers, continues to be a primary draw for both leisure and MICE tourism, but growing awareness of what other major cities and coastal regions have to offer has increased volumes all over the country. Well established as a destination in key Western markets, one of Colombia’s primary tourism goals is expanding its reach in fast-growing Asian markets.

Tourism’s contribution to Colombian GDP was 5.8% in 2017, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), the same as the year before. Around 2.1% of this came from direct contributions. More than 1.3 million jobs were directly and indirectly supported by the industry, equal to 5.8% of total employment. The WTTC projects tourism’s total contribution to GDP to increase by 3.6% per year through 2028. Though a fairly average rate of growth by global standards, development in recent years has placed the industry on par with the rest of Latin America when it comes to absolute size; 2017’s direct contribution of USD6.7 billion to GDP was even with the regional average. One area where Colombia’s tourist sector stands out is the rate of visitor spending; according to WTTC data, visitors spent more than USD6 billion in the country in 2017, well above the regional average and behind only Mexico for all Latin American countries.
The high rate of foreign spending in the country reflects the strengths of the sector. The sector is better established in Western markets than many other Latin American countries; in 2017, 19.2% of visitors came from the US and 15.4% came from Europe, which represented the two largest groups of visitors. 2017 saw 6.5 million tourists enter the country, a 300% increase in less than a decade, and Colombia’s tourist promotion agencies have already publicly announced their goal of hitting 7.5 million arrivals in 2018. This growth has been spurred by a combination of infrastructure developments that have turned a previously unreliable road and air transport system into one of the better networks in Latin America, as well as improved social stability that has uplifted Colombia’s global image and allowed cities other than Bogotá to develop their tourism industries. Today, Cartagena and Medellí­n are both destinations in their own right, with government statistics reporting that more than a quarter of all foreign visitors were destined for one of these two cities.
Through it all, Bogotá has remained the keystone of Colombia’s tourism sector, with the city’s MICE offerings taking on special importance in recent years. The MICE tourism sector is lucrative; one Colombian investment promotion agency estimated that MICE tourists spent up to five times as much as regular tourists. Bogotá regularly hosts major regional and global gatherings, and according to the International Congress and Convention Association, it was the eighth-most popular convention destination in Latin America. In January 2018, Bogotá opened the Agora International Convention Center, a new 64,883sqft center that will serve as the city’s new hub for MICE tourism. With a capacity of 4,000 visitors, Agora gives Bogotá the ability to host larger events and solidify its role as a key meeting point for the world. Early returns look positive; the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce reported upon the center’s opening that there are already more than 200 events booked for 2018.
Moving forward, two of the tourism industry’s most important goals are increasing ecotourism revenues and forming new connections with the rapidly growing Asian market. One of the most biodiverse countries in the world, Colombia is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the demand for wildlife tourism.
The government has worked closely with private tour operators to develop offerings that bring visitors in contact with the country’s wildlife with minimal disruption or environmental damage. While infrastructure in rural areas has improved in recent years, there are still gaps that limit the ability of the tourism industry to take advantage of all of the nation’s natural resources. However, government leaders are confident that the stability brought about by the end of the country’s civil conflict will allow for new development. Asia, home to some of the fastest-growing tourism demand markets in the world, is already well connected with Colombia economically. Tourism promotion agencies are looking to build off these preexisting ties to bring new visitors to the country. In 2017 ProColombia launched the China Travel Academy, an e-learning platform designed to help Chinese travel agencies navigate the Colombian market. The government is working to streamline visa access and add language support in popular natural sites, with the long-term goal of establishing a steady pipeline of Asian visitors.