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Colombia seeks to expand tourism as it sees big bump in visitors

Though the life of notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar is still a tourist draw, new areas like alpine cycling and health tourism are attracting visitors.
Image: A group of the press and government representatives practice rafting guided by ex-FARC rebels in Miravalle
A group of the press and government representatives practice rafting guided by ex-FARC rebels in Miravalle, Colombia on November 9, 2018.LUISA GONZALEZ / Reuters

CARTAGENA, Colombia — Jill Colbeck of Denver recalled her friends' reaction when she said she wanted to return to Colombia and explore the country after a cruise ship visit to South America.

“All our friends said, ‘Why in the world would you choose Colombia?’” Colbeck told NBC News during a visit in August to the picturesque city of Cartagena, which was once the home of the British adventurer and privateer Sir Francis Drake.

Colbeck said she had read enough in mainstream publications such as The New York Times and National Geographic to feel comfortable about a visit, despite the country’s violent past.

This month marks two years since the Colombian government signed a peace agreement to end five decades of a wrenching, violent civil war, earning the country’s president at the time, Juan Manuel Santos, the Nobel Peace Prize.

Though the country is still wrestling with how to carry out the agreement amid a new government, Colombia is seeing massive growth in its tourism sector.

People walk at the historic district of La Candelaria, in Bogota at night, on October 31, 2018.JUAN BARRETO / AFP - Getty Images

Its trade ministry says more than 3 million visitors came to Colombia in 2017, a 200 percent jump since 2006, as more American and international tourists are making it a destination.

Interest in Colombia’s history as the one-time capital of the international drug trade still runs high. Though Colombians may bristle at their country's reputation — Javier Bardem recently told NBC News that residents asked him not to glamorize ’80s drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in a recent movie — the reality is that stories like Escobar's still draw tourists.

“We’re going to Medellin, as an add-on, because of ‘Narcos,'” said Colbeck, referring to the popular Netflix series about Escobar. “My husband thought it was an absolute must.”

Colbeck, a retired finance executive, was scheduled to go on a tour of Escobar’s luxury prison, called “La Catedral" (The Cathedral), with the help of a former police officer who offers guides. Escobar was listed in Forbes in 1987 as the richest man in the Americas, with an estimated fortune of $3 billion.

Colombia has a new president, Ivan Duque, 42, a conservative who was an adviser to former President Alvaro Uribe. The government has been taking steps to expand tourism while moving away from its infamous history.

In September, the BBC reported that the unofficial Pablo Escobar museum, operated by Escobar’s brother, in Medellin was raided and shuttered. The same month, El Tiempo reported that the Monaco building where Escobar lived would be torn down, and perhaps a park would replace it, in honor of his victims.

In January, The New York Times listed Colombia as a place to visit in 2018, and Hilton said it would build three hotels in the country in the next 18 months.

Image: Cabildo de Getsemani festival in Cartagena
People dressed in costumes participate in the the Cabildo de Getsemani festival, in Cartagena, Colombia, where locals and foreigners enjoy the folkloric exhibitions.RICARDO MALDONADO ROZO / EPA

In Cartagena, Julian Baker, who is British, started a travel and business consultancy, Travel Colombia Direct.

“Corporate people never really came here," Baker said. "It used to be people from South America or Central America. Then President Barack Obama came here for a conference and it was massive news."

Baker also noted a growing number of convention centers are helping position Colombia as a global conference destination. “The transition in the past 12 years has been phenomenal,” he said.

Even former FARC guerrillas have jumped on the tourism bandwagon, working to create an eco-tourist friendly destination in the jungle to show visitors how they lived and to learn about the peace process. El Espectador reported in August that 19 former fighters were training in the hopes of being part of the so-called peace tourism.

Colombia builds on the "orange economy"

Eric Rodriguez, dean of the University of the Andes School of Management, said in a phone interview that Colombia as a spot for tourism "isn’t just related to the peace agreement.”

The past few years have seen an organic growth in tourism, as Europeans and Americans alike look for more exotic destinations. Rodriguez said the new government has a strategic plan to develop creative and cultural industries, including sports and health, known as the “orange economy.” Colombia is becoming a destination for cyclists from all over the world looking for high altitude training, he notes.

Image: View of the river Pato in Miravalle
View of the river Pato in Miravalle, Colombia on November 9, 2018.LUISA GONZALEZ / Reuters

Rodriguez said the Andes School has increased the number of international students — from destinations as far afield as Shanghai and Poland — by 42 percent in the past three years.

As health tourism — including visits to Colombia for cosmetic procedures — has grown, Rodriguez noted that hospitals and hotels are being built.

“Serena del Mar is one of the spots for international investment, and many companies are looking at it as the way to bring tourism to Colombia,” he said of a new hospital set to open early next year. “Investors are looking to bring people for the concept of health tourism."

Spirit Airlines is launching its first flight to Cali, Colombia, this winter, its fifth Colombian destination. Discount airline Viva Air is beginning a flight between Miami and the coastal city of Santa Marta, according to the company’s website.

Touting the sounds of J Balvin and Shakira

The movie and the music industries have helped stimulate foreigners' appetite for Colombia. The country’s marketing slogan is “Colombia, Tierra de la Sabrosura,” which roughly translates as "the land of delicious vibes."

Musicians such as Shakira, J Balvin, Maluma and Fonseca have catapulted the country to the center of the Latin music industry. Julián Guerrero is the vice president of tourism at ProColombia, which promotes tourism initiatives.

Guerrero worked with Fonseca and other big names to make a series of music videos. “Music is a powerful vehicle to promote tourism," he told Billboard. Indeed, Colombia’s J. Balvin is one of the most nominated artists at the Latin Grammys, which will be held in Las Vegas later this month.

As for movies, the appetite for Escobar-related projects seems to have no end. “Loving Pablo,” starring Bardem and his real-life wife, Penelope Cruz, follows the love story between Escobar and his journalist girlfriend, who eventually helped turn him in. Amazon’s action thriller, “Jack Ryan,” is filming its second season in Colombia.

Even Will Smith is getting in on the Colombia sabrosura, sharing an Instagram video this summer of himself filming in Cartagena. He was making “Gemini Man,” set for release next year.

One American, however, has been reluctant to visit Colombia. President Donald Trump was expected in the country this month, after the G-20 meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The White House canceled the visit, however, without much explanation — the second time a Trump visit has been canceled.