If you’ve set your sights on the Lost City in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta as a destination for 2019 or can muster up the courage to sleep under the stars in the Tatacoa desert, chances are government travel advisories won’t change your ambitions. But anytime violence strikes close to home, as was the case January 17 when a car bomb detonated by the ELN guerrilla inside the General Santander National Police Academy in Bogotá killing 21 and injuring 86, the issue of security in Colombia becomes a topic of conversation for travelers, whether local or foreign.
Think Barcelona, London and Paris, all cities that have faced terror attacks in recent years, but where tourism continues to grow regardless of crowds, enhanced policing, camera surveillance and travel advisories written in small print. And Bogotá is no ex- ception, a world-class city that cannot be labelled any more “dangerous” than its European counterparts, but which is more vulnerable to negative press and entrenched perception of insecurity from those who have not visited.
Fortunately, however, the numbers are proving otherwise, as last year saw record numbers of foreigners come to Colombia, some 4.4 million according to the country’s Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Tourism (MinCIT) and up 10 percent from 2017.
As the country receives accolades for its hospitality, gastronomy and landmarks in prestigious publications, including a recent 36 Hours in Bogotá report in The New York Times, it would be counter-productive to dissuade visitors from coming. That said, travel warnings exist for a reason with the United States State Department issuing a Level 2 warning, which advises visitors to “exercise increased caution due to crime and terrorism.”
The “no go to” departments in the US advisory are Arauca, Cauca (except Popayán), Chocó (except Nuquí), Nariño and Norte de Santander (except Cúcuta), all regions where the ELN exercise some degree of territorial control.
The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) gets specific with places that visitors should avoid at all cost, including the port of Buenaventura (Valle de Cauca) and port of Tumaco (Nariño). The FCO also lists those places it advises against going to except for “all but essential travel.”
On this list are the departments of Cauca, Chocó, Putumayo, Meta, Nariño, Arauca, Caquetá, Guaviare, Guainía, Vichada and Norte de Santander, except their capital cities.
No country is immune to the possibility of terrorism, and it only takes one ghastly act for travelers to re-schedule or cancel their holiday plans. A terror attack on a luxury hotel complex in Nairobi, the same week as the ELN bombing in Bogotá has had “minimal impact on tourism to Kenya,” a travel group reported. According to ForwardKeys, which forecasts future travel patterns by analyzing 17 million booking transactions a day, “a setback in visitor arrivals will last less than two weeks.”
On the heels of Spain’s largest travel fair (FITUR) in January (which took place in Madrid just three days after the Bogotá bombing), Colombia’s 100-strong delegation promoted its well-known portfolio of destinations, as well as a new campaign “Colombia: Feel the Rhythm” to encourage more growth in the sector. According to Vice Minister of Tourism Juan Pablo Franky, with the success of FITUR, the government now expects around 530,000 more foreign visitors in 2019, a 12 percent increase from last year. And now, its Bogotá’s turn to host the international community with February the designated month for the annual travel and tourism fair ANATO. As the Colombian capital gears up to showcase international and domestic airlines, hotel chains, boutique operators and thousands of visitors interested in discovering new destinations, it remains to be seen how much fallout – if any – there will be in the sector when it comes to “selling Colombia” to potential buyers amid concerns that January’s bombing was not an isolated incident.
The government’s official numbers have been well-publicized, and come as more global carriers plan to open routes to and from Bogotá’s El Dorado airport this year. While Colombia’s tourism offering is growing three times faster than the GDP, travel warnings don’t appear to be a deterrent. That leaves the question: Do travelers really listen to government warnings?
This year may be as good as any to explore Colombia, even whale watch off the Pacific coast (excluded in the US advisory), and if you want to take a selfie next to the River of Seven Colors at Caño Cristales, go with a “reputable tour company travelling by air to and from the town of La Macarena,” as the UK’s FCO recommends.
So safe travels, be alert, and always choose the road most traveled.