Interview: Jean Claude Bessudo
What will the main drivers be behind the development of Colombia’s tourism industry?
JEAN CLAUDE BESSUDO: As far as the business and convention segments are concerned, Colombia is already well equipped, with its wide array of hotels and convention venues, strong gastronomy options and high-quality translators. Virtually all major international hotel chains are present in the country. Hotel occupancy rates for 2017 reached 56.3%, and this figure is sure to continue growing as the economy rebounds in the coming years.
However, the most important driver behind the recent influx of international tourists is the image of the signing of the peace deal with FARC. Its new status as a peaceful nation has put Colombia back on the leisure travel list of many who used to consider it unsafe. Consolidating this achievement going forward is expected to progressively boost our international visitor numbers, bringing us in line with global trends.
Where does the Colombian tourism industry’s competitive advantage lie?
BESSUDO: As one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, Colombia is perfectly positioned to benefit from a worldwide surge in demand for ecotourism. Demand from green tourism enthusiasts is becoming increasingly specialised across a number of niches, with visitors wanting to look for blue lizards on Gorgona Island, dive with hammerhead sharks on Malpelo Island, see whales in the Pacific or go sports fishing in Cupica Bay. We must create a comprehensive map of our resources and tourism potential in order to provide a platform for small, high-end, eco-friendly options.
While Colombia has over 2000 km of coasts, only around 25 km of white-sand beaches can cater to the demands of luxury beach tourism. The type of sand and infrastructure required to respond to the needs of this segment can only be found across a number of islands, such as Providencia, San Andrés and a few others off the coast of Cartagena, of which many are already over-populated. Nevertheless, Colombia’s coastline is far from reaching its full potential. One of the primary gaps in our tourism sector is the lack of an iconic, cultural attraction like Machu Picchu in Peru or El Tajín, the city of the Totonac people, in Mexico. In this context, the Sierra Nevada mountain range, to be found in the Department of Magdalena on the Caribbean coast, has potential for those seeking to offer an eco-friendly alternative that is coupled with cultural significance.
What initiatives can attract further investment?
BESSUDO: As in many other sectors there is growing interest in investing in Colombia, and the government is already offering a number of incentives. In the case of tourism one example is that hotel services have been granted income tax exemptions of over 30 years, which will enable investors to recoup their investments within a reasonable time frame. However, issues related to legal security and transparency need to be addressed.
Another question to consider is which local communities welcome tourism-related investment, to mitigate any risks associated with prior consultation, which often pit locals against foreign interests. Creating a map of these consultations will provide added visibility to investors, paving the way for more transparency and better security. Tourism can act as a catalyst for development in remote areas where there is insufficient economic activity, but locals can occasionally prove resistant to foreign intervention. Opening adequate communication channels constitutes a first step towards working out what kind of tourist attraction would be the best fit for a particular region, and to what extent any given project may prove feasible there.
While construction of tourism infrastructure within natural parks is not allowed, establishing well-defined buffer zones around protected areas would enable Colombia to profit from its natural heritage. The creation of a tourism master plan that provides a safe haven for investment is paramount to attracting capital.