Nation rehabilitation: Colombia emerges from shadows, and eyes strong trade partnership with India

by Dave

Colombia – the only risk is wanting to stay

Minister Santos speaking after 2010 CII Indo-LAC Conclave
The Globe and Mail

Indeed, The New York Times listed Colombia in its top 31 places to go in 2010, saying Bogotá has become “a role model of urban reinvention,” and calls Cartagena the next Buenos Aires.

Lonely Planet ranked Colombia in its top 10 list of happiest places in the world. Robert Reid, co-author of the last edition, says, “Would I take my mom there? I would in a heartbeat.

There are plenty of reasons [Colombia] should be an obvious tourist and trade destination. It has never defaulted on its debt. The oldest democracy in the southern hemisphere, it is also a land of great natural beauty.

The country is diverse, strapped by two oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific, laced with three mountain ranges, jungle, coastline, savannah and Caribbean islands. Its cloud forests are as rich in species as the Amazon, according to the Nature Conservancy. It also has the highest number of exotic bird species, frogs, and variety of orchids in the world; the World Wildlife Fund ranks it fifth in terms of biodiversity.

Many of the current changes afoot in Colombia are credited to outgoing President Alvaro Uribe’s security policies. Under his watch, backed by funding from the U.S., thousands of paramilitaries and guerrillas have exchanged guns for civilian clothes. FARC attacks have subsided, with most of the internal conflict shifting out of cities to remote areas. [A]fter thousands of presentations, greeted with polite skepticism, Canadians were finally tempted by “the physical story,” Mr. Dieppa says: “That it’s closer than you think [to North America]. That we have a 94-per-cent literacy rate. That 70 per cent of our electricity is green and that we’re the size of Ontario, but with five distinctive regions.”

The influx of foreign investment – investors from India to Argentina are laying big bets on the country’s prospects and diminished security risks – is one sign efforts are paying off. Canadian visits to Colombia have more than doubled in eight years. Air Canada now makes direct flights from Toronto or Vancouver to Bogotá four times a week. Global hotel chains such as Marriott are expanding in the country, lured by a 30-year tax exemption on services in new hotels. Cruise ships increased 35 per cent from 2008 to 2009.

YOU CAN DRINK THE WATER, BUT CAN THEY CLEAR THE AIR?

The bad reputation that precedes Colombia can be an advantage when people do get here, as there’s plenty of potential to surprise: Streets in main cities are closed to cars on Sundays, making room for cyclists and joggers. You can drink the tap water in the main cities. Its universities and hospitals are among the best on the continent.

There are signs tourism is a young industry. English is rare, and English menus nearly non-existent. On the plus side, Colombian waiters, mango sellers and cab drivers are not yet jaded; they are welcoming to tourists. Taxis don’t overcharge. While the military and police presence is pervasive, they tolerate having their photos taken.

A current tourism slogan makes a cheeky reference to past strife: “Colombia: the only risk is wanting to stay.”

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