No longer the world’s best kept secret, more than 1.6 million foreign tourists arrived in Colombia last year. Travel to Colombia is growing significantly faster than the global average, and as more than three quarters of visitors pass arrive by air, the aviation industry is booming.
This incredible economic driver was the focus of the sixth annual Routes Americas conference this week in Cartagena, which brought together several of the planet’s most important airlines to discuss the challenges and successes of the air travel industry in Colombia and around the world.
“My time in Latin America has been the most hectic of my life, in a good way. I’ve never seen a region moving so quickly in the right direction,” said Airbus Marketing Director for Latin America Amaya Rodríguez. Air travel growth in Colombia is more than three times the world average, and the majority of trips are for tourism.
This astonishing growth is reflected in numerous efforts to improve aviation infrastructure. Cartagena’s Rafael Núñez International Airport is spending approximately USD $13 million in renovations and expansions that will allow it to handle 3 million passengers annually, and Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport debuted a new international terminal last year. Construction continues on El Dorado’s new domestic terminal and additional expansions. The airport is the entry point for more than two thirds of foreign visitors to Colombia.
“We’re still in the process of change, but we’re very satisfied in being able to help sell a city and a country,” said Santiago Castro, the director of Aeronáutica Civil, the government organization that oversees the nation’s domestic air travel, referring to the new El Dorado terminal. “It used to be that people arriving in Colombia had to overcome their first impression. Now it’s a jaw-dropper.”
The industry is not just focusing on international travelers, however. As Colombia’s middle class grows – it is expected to double in size over the next two decades – domestic flights are experiencing increased demand. In-country air traffic increased by more than 11 percent from 2011 to 2012.
“We approve of the Santos administration’s bold challenge of reaching 26 million air travel passengers in 2014. In fact, we hope to reach that number this year instead,” said Castro. More than 22 million passengers flew to or within Colombia in 2012 according to Proexport, the government organization in charge of tourism, exports and foreign investment.
The boost in national flights seems to be at least partially related to the demand for low-cost routes. Offering one-way tickets as low as $50,000 pesos, VivaColombia has proven that it can challenge longstanding giants like AviancaTaca and LAN, the latter having absorbed former Colombian low-cost carrier Aires in 2010.
“The less developed the market, the greater the challenge in getting people off of couches or off of buses, but in Medellín, we’ve seen traffic at the bus terminal decline,” said Juan Emilio Posada, chairman and co-founder of VivaColombia, suggesting that the low-cost airline, based in Medellín, may have had an impact on ground travel to and from the city.
Regardless of the factors behind the considerable growth in air passengers, increased tourism, both domestic and international, is a boon for the Colombian economy. “An airport is an economic center,” said Brian Hedberg, Senior Air Services Negotiator for the U.S. Department of Transportation. “Governments need to start looking at air passengers as an export.”
Indeed, tourism remains the third largest sector of the Colombian economy behind oil and coal. Travelers are expected to pump well over USD $3 billion into the nation’s economy this year.
Stark challenges remain for the industry, however, particularly in rising fuel costs, increasing competition from global alliances – American Airlines and U.S. Airways are expected to announce a merger within days, for example – and restrictive government regulations.
“AviancaTaca deals with nine different regulatory systems and has nine different authorities to comply with in the region,” pointed out AviancaTaca COO Estuardo Ortiz. Dealing with diverse and often contradictory rules and standards can be a major financial drain on airlines, one of the most strictly regulated industries in the world. Latin America as a region tends to be less coordinated in providing a common regulatory system than other areas, such as Europe.
“Airlines here have to tell the government that we need to work together if we’re going to compete on a global scale,” said Alex de Gunten, Executive Director of ALTA, the Latin American and Caribbean Air Transport Association.
If the spirit at this year’s Routes Americas conference is any indicator, it seems entirely likely that the region’s aviation industry will indeed manage to expand upon its considerable successes in the coming months, and that can only mean good news for Colombia’s tourism industry, for which the sky is truly the limit.