Looking to leverage the momentum of an expanding tourism sector, in December 2018 the Colombian government introduced the Plan for the Tourism Sector 2018-22. With emphasis on sustainability, responsibility and quality, the plan aims to position the country as an innovative, diverse, high-value destination to promote long-term, inclusive and sustainable growth. Several areas of focus are highlighted in the document and include the integrated management, better infrastructure, improvements in education to meet international standards, entrepreneurship, formalisation and productivity, information and promotion, and domestic tourism. Within these pillars are 30 programmes and 200 action plans laid out to achieve the objectives. These areas of focus aim to build upon and expand previous government efforts to boost the tourism sector.
In the strategy document that accompanied the plan, tourism authorities cited the lack of institutional support as one of the primary factors behind the sector’s structural challenges, including those involving public services, security, sanitation, accessibility and connectivity. To improve institutional support the government aims to enhance communication and cooperation between government entities both vertically (between national and local governments) and horizontally (between different ministries and national entities).
One initiative under this goal is a programme managed by the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism (Ministerio de Comercio, Industria y Turismo, MINCIT) called Tourism and Peace, which seeks to boost collaboration by bringing together the national government, the private sector and communities across 132 municipalities in five of the country’s territories. The initiative’s central objective is to develop territories for tourism, promote tourism and peace as part of the culture, generate value chains, and improve the quality of life in communities through responsible and sustainable practices. Communities are divided into different categories based on their needs and levels of development, with those with environmental degradation and lower levels of security ranked in a “critical state”. According to the MINCIT, the programme already started paying off, with one critical area – Sierra de la Macarena National Park – boosting visitor numbers from 4450 in 2013 to 14,438 in 2018, benefitting 595 families. Similarly, Camino Yeyuna in Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria recorded an increase from 8180 to 25,548 visitors over the same period, benefitting 3678 locals.
In addition to collaboration the document laid out incentives to encourage institutional support. To that end, in February 2019 President Iván Duque announced the elimination of a 20% energy hotel surcharge by decree. Energy costs can represent 30-50% of a hotel’s operating costs, and according to the Hotel and Tourism Association of Colombia, the levy was previously paid by 7000 establishments at an annual total of COP74trn ($25.3bn). “A reduction in the cost burden for hotels will allow them to be more competitive and efficient, and encourage better rates or better service for tourists,” Karol Fajardo, deputy minister of tourism, told OBG.
Integrated Destination Management
With growing numbers of tourists traveling from countries across North America and Europe, the government is looking to be more strategic about how and what tourism services are on offer. To do so, it has identified in the tourism master plan the need to ensure that all stakeholders have basic financial and institution support so that they can offer high-quality tourism experiences and assure that previous problems with planning in tourist zones are addressed. The plan also noted the need to shift from short- to long-term planning.
The integrated destination management pillar will build on the January 2017 launch of 12 tourism corridors created to bring domestic and foreign tourists to new sites. Each corridor was developed around a classic tourist site and includes nearby, yet-to-be-popularised locations such as the central corridor, which centres around Bogotá and includes Boyacá, Huila, Tolima and Cundinamarca. Government officials created the corridors with the aim to integrate tourism offerings, increase competitiveness of the regions and the average stay of foreign tourists, encourage the development of high-impact infrastructure and generate more options for domestic tourism.
The plan’s focus on formalisation comes shortly after the November 2018 introduction of the National Tourism Registry (Registro Nacional de Turismo, RNT), which was created to consolidate all tourism providers under one database. Developed by MINCIT, the system, which was updated and went into force in February 2019, was designed to be more userfriendly and technologically advanced. It also reduces paperwork and encourages information-sharing between key authorities such as the National Tourism Fund (Fondo Nacional de Turismo, Fontur), the MINCIT and the National Directorate of Taxes and Customs.
The RNT distinguishes between three types of accommodation providers: tourist-specific lodging; housing used for tourism purposes; and other types of non-permanent tourist accommodation. It also theoretically requires Airbnb providers to register their properties in the RNT. Stakeholders had until March 31, 2019 to register on the database, with registration continuing on an annual basis. If providers fail to register, they risk having their properties and/or services closed or prohibited by the authorities.
It is not only accommodation that is being formalised in Colombia, but tour guides as well. In January 2019 the constitutional court ruled that all tour guides operating in the country should be fully trained and have a permit before being allowed to register on the RNT, strengthening government efforts to formalise the sector.
Created in 1996, Fontur plays a key role in the MINCIT’s tourism policies, funding the ministry’s tourist-specific strategic initiatives. Fontur is financed by taxes from companies linked to tourism activities, and channels money into tourism promotion and infrastructure development. Its overall goal is to develop Colombia into a sustainable tourism destination through investment and participation in high-impact projects linking both the private and public sector in common strategy goals. From 2010 to August 2018, COP1.1trn ($376.2m) was invested in 168 tourism projects throughout the country, with COP576bn ($197m) coming from Fontur and an additional COP562bn ($192.2m) coming from regional entities.
Tourism officials are also working with specialised banks to encourage the availability of financing beyond Fontur to help the sector grow. In November 2018 the MINCIT, together with development bank Bancóldex, announced a credit programme to boost infrastructure in medium-sized cities. Under the programme a credit line of COP300bn ($102.6m) will be available for municipalities of up to 500,000 inhabitants. Loans will have a payment period of up to 15 years and a grace period of three. They will be designated for tourism service providers, especially accommodation, in order to provide a more comprehensive offer of hotels across the country. In particular, the goal is find ways to modernise businesses, including hotels, tourist parks and ecotourism-related projects. “These long-term investments facilitate the arrival of resources to intermediate cities, many of historically affected by the conflict,” Mario Suárez Melo, then-president of Bancóldex, said in a statement in November 2018. “The loans are a catalyst for these regions.” This comes after an announcement in October 2018 from Bancóldex offering over COP2bn ($684,000) to the Meta Department, a region previously affected by armed conflict. The objective of the programme was to turn tourism into the top source of income for the region. Each company may access up to COP100m ($34,200) for modernisation of infrastructure, education or acquisition of new technology.
The plan’s focus on domestic tourism was emphasised in the launch of the #YoVoy (“I am going”) campaign at the Association of Colombian Travel Agencies and Operators trade show in February 2019. Increasing numbers of Colombians are able to enjoy leisure tourism as the middle class expands and flight prices fall. As such, the campaign encourages Colombians to take one domestic trip a year. The success of the Plan for the Tourism Sector 2018-22 will be impossible without effective promotion, President Duque said at the trade show, adding that it is important for Colombians to recognise travelling is not only for the few. “The time has come for all Colombians to travel the country,” the president stated.
Maintaining the sector’s high levels of growth will be critical to the goal of providing sustainable development to communities, while at the same time offering tourists access to some of Colombia’s most pristine sites. Authorities’ ability to lay the groundwork in underdeveloped areas will be the key test for using tourism to jump-start growth. This will be especially true for the regions that stand to benefit the most, many of which have the potential to evolve into major tourist destinations for Colombians and international visitors alike.