BOGOTÁ, Colombia — When
it comes to tough sells for a vacation, it doesn't get much tougher than Colombia. The South American country has a well-earned
reputation for gun-toting guerrillas, cocaine kingpins and the world's highest kidnapping rate.
after decades of being shunned as too dangerous for travelers, the country is riding an unprecedented tourist boom.
Spurred by news of the country's dramatically improved security situation and healthy economy, nearly a million
foreigners visited last year, a 21 percent jump over 2004 and the largest influx since 1982, according to Colombia's Commerce,
Industry and Tourism Ministry. Their goal for 2006 is to double that again, to 2 million foreign visitors.
Credit goes to the country's popular right-wing president, Álvaro Uribe, who was sworn in for another
four-year term on Monday. Uribe's pursuit of the rebels has restored relative safety to once perilous roadways. Kidnappings
dropped 78 percent during Uribe's first term in office, to 371 last year according to the government. That may even be below
Haiti and the tourist haven of Mexico, where kidnappings-for-cash have boomed.
only Colombian vacationers seemed willing to test the waters, at times driving to tourist hot spots in military-escorted caravans.
Now that the highways are more secure, they travel in bumper-to-bumper droves, and the foreigners are following.
Changing its image
For the first time, the government is spending
heavily to promote the country abroad. To clean up its drugs-and-violence image, it launched last year a long-term, multimillion
dollar "Colombia Is Passion" campaign. Promoters hope the icon, a heart with the flowing lines of a flower, will
become as easily recognizable as the Canadian maple leaf or Japanese rising sun.
by the PR blitz, the Caribbean port city of Cartagena was selected to host the World Tourism Organization's 2007 convention,
the travel industry's most important gathering. And the staff of the Lonely Planet backpacker guides picked Colombia as one
of this year's 10 hot spots.
Even the U.S. State Department, which for years advised against
traveling to Colombia, has softened its travel warning, acknowledging that while dangers persist, the violence in most urban
areas has decreased markedly.
In the 1970s, before the emergence of cocaine kingpin Pablo
Escobar and drug-fueled violence shut much of the country off from the world and even most Colombians, it was an obligatory
stop for globe-trotting hippies.Twice
the size of France, Colombia boasts myriad natural attractions, from Amazon jungles to some of the last high-altitude glaciers
left in the tropics and pristine beaches along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Visitors can see pre-Columbian archaeological
ruins and still-vibrant indigenous cultures as well as great museums in Medellín and Bogotá.
Best of all, for now there are precious few camera-clickers to share them all with, because the boom still
has a ways to go before catching up with more traveled South American destinations.
is the continent's second most populous country, after Brazil, but ranked seventh in the region's tourist arrivals in 2004,
according to the World Tourism Organization.
"The only people you have to share the
swaying wax palms and sweaty salsa clubs with are a handful of hardy travelers and crowds of friendly Colombians," said
Michael Kohn, author of a new Colombia guidebook for Lonely Planet.
The biggest tourist
magnet is the 16th-century walled city of Cartagena, whose reputation for beachcombing, stunning colonial architecture and
all-night partying has long made it one of the Caribbean's top destinations.
The city is
luring back the attention of the international cruise lines, whose deep-pocketed passengers are the most coveted in the tourist
To make room for all the tourists, a record 45 new hotels were built in Colombia
last year, many in Cartagena and nearby beach resorts, according to the country's hotel-trade association.