As the second-most-biologically-diverse country on the planet, it is unsurprising that Colombia holds considerable nature tourism potential. In the past, however, Colombia’s socio-political conflicts have prevented this segment from fully developing. Only recent security and social stability has allowed attention to shift towards responsibly exploiting the country’s abundant natural resources, an agenda that now enjoys government support and displays growing opportunities.

GROUNDWORK: Colombia’s 56 National Reserve Parks (Parques Nacionales Naturales, PNN) protect a total of 12.6m ha, or 12% of the national territory. With diverse scenery from Amazonian rainforests to the mountainous ravines of the Andes and down to the coastlines of the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, visitors’ options are varied. Interest is on the rise, as seen by the numbers of visitors to national parks over the last couple of years. Between foreigners and Colombians, a total of 825,470 people visited PNNs in 2012, representing a 19% annual growth rate, up from 694,148 in 2011, as per PNN figures administered by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.

Numbers have risen partly due to government support of the nature tourism industry. In 2004 PNN started a concession procedure to encourage ecotourism activities, partially tendering lands to leading national operators and hotel chains. Within this framework, operators pay around 10% of income to the PNN, which remains in charge of regulating sustainable activities.

Aviatur, which has the largest presence in national parks, established operations in Amacayacu, Gorgona, Tayrona and Los Nevados. For the company’s president Jean-Claude Bessudo, the concession procedure was necessary to develop the ecotourism segment and to participate in preservation efforts of natural habitats. “Colombia is not a country with the conditions for mass tourism. The rich biodiversity and many indigenous communities that still inhabit lands need to be respected. There are many opportunities here but we need to be careful how we exploit them,” Bessudo told OBG.

CHALLENGES: The concession procedure has not been free from setbacks. In 2012 heavy rains in the Amazon flooded rivers in and around Amacayacu, forcing the park to close temporarily and eroding lands near Aviatur’s hospitality installations. That same year, alerts of volcanic eruptions closed Los Nevados, also affecting the company’s operations. Both incidents caused the early termination of Aviatur’s contracts with PNN.

The company’s Gorgona concession, which lasts until 2015, has suffered income losses due mainly to problems with accessing the park, located on an island off the Pacific coast. PNN has publicly declared intentions of overcoming operational difficulties, such as access, in order to open concessions to new operators. Between 2005 and 2011, PNN income from the concession model has amounted to more than COP9bn ($5.4m).

CONFLICTS: Larger conflicts have arisen over the Tayrona concession, one of the most popular and profitable in Colombia, located on the Caribbean coast.

Questions over whether Aviatur previously consulted indigenous communities living on the park’s grounds led to judicial proceedings that ended the contract in early 2013. A staunch defender of indigenous rights to the lands, Bessudo told OBG he believes the park should be managed by communities, similar to several models in Costa Rica that have proven to be successful for ecotourism. Though his company will willingly leave the premises and search for nearby grounds to construct accommodations with access to Tayrona, Bessudo criticised authorities for not establishing clearer rules throughout the entire concession procedure.

Other companies have recently sought out land for operations in Tayrona but to no avail. The most notable case is Six Senses, a Thai luxury hotel chain known for sustainable awareness, which proposed two separate projects. One eco-hotel project actually began construction but the licence was revoked in February 2013, again charged with not having consulted indigenous communities. Six Senses has confirmed it will still open a hotel in Colombia but has not yet announced a site.

INCENTIVES: Despite conflicts over park usage, both the public and private sectors are placing their bets on nature tourism. As one of the priority segments for the state-run Productive Transformation Programme ( Programa de Transformación Productiva, PTP), nature tourism is receiving strategic and institutional resources via a business plan that aims to build sector potential. The PTP is one of the government’s main programmes to boost private sector capacity in manufacturing, agriculture and services (see Industry chapter).

Contrary to popular belief, this niche segment covers a wide range of activities that bring visitors into contact with nature, such as adventure and rural tourism. Marketing iconic Colombian characteristics such as the coffee production zone, also known as the Eje Cafetero (“Coffee Triangle”), will play a vital role in the success of such initiatives. While both these segments are covered by the PTP plan, ecotourism is the primary focus, primarily due to its sophisticated and high-spending markets, but also to the truly sustainable characteristics that it represents. As such, the PTP has performed studies on the viability of several low-impact projects to increase sector potential, including the development of eco-lodges and visitor centres.

PROPOSALS: Results of these studies have generated some project proposals to assist investors. There is an opportunity, for example, to create a luxury eco-lodge complex near Caños Cristales, a river located in the Sierra de la Macarena National Park. With over 1592 species of plants and 772 species of fauna, the park is already an attractive location, but the river, known for its unique colourful algae, is the principal draw for visitors.

The PTP proposes that the establishment include 30 standard cottages and 10 suites, slated for a total area of 9414 sq metres, with estimated investments of $6.5m. The internal rate of return is forecast at 26% and total investment should be recuperated over a span of nine years and three months. The investment would be broken down into the land (0.2%), infrastructure (21.15%) and the majority for the hotel (78.72%).

Accessible in one and a half hours by plane from Bogotá, Caño Cristales has been receiving an influx of visitors in the past few years. With such projects, the PTP hopes to more than triple the number of visitors to the area by 2026 to more than 13,500, making it one of the principal destinations for nature tourism.

The PTP has narrowed its market to foreign tourists, most of whom come from the US and Europe. In 2011, foreign arrivals participating exclusively in nature tourism activities increased by 16%, amounting to 260,688, according to PTP figures. These tourists spent an average of $1977 during their stay. If such growth patterns are consistent and the aggressive government programme succeeds, PTP long-term estimates place yearly nature tourism arrivals at just under 1m by 2026.

For those looking to enter the segment with hotels, the best bet is to construct near national parks or consult government-sponsored programmes, such as the PTP. A 20-year tax exemption on ecotourism services will prove a major incentive for both foreign and local firms looking to enter this high-potential segment.