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Friday, August 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Colombia retools image, tourists begin to return

The Associated Press

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — When it comes to tough sells for a vacation, it doesn't get much tougher than Colombia. The South American country has a well-earned reputation for gun-toting guerrillas, cocaine kingpins and the world's highest kidnapping rate.

But after decades of being shunned as too dangerous for travelers, the country is riding an unprecedented tourist boom.

Spurred by news of the country's dramatically improved security situation and healthy economy, nearly a million foreigners visited last year, a 21 percent jump over 2004 and the largest influx since 1982, according to Colombia's Commerce, Industry and Tourism Ministry. Their goal for 2006 is to double that again, to 2 million foreign visitors.

Credit goes to the country's popular right-wing president, Álvaro Uribe, who was sworn in for another four-year term on Monday. Uribe's pursuit of the rebels has restored relative safety to once perilous roadways. Kidnappings dropped 78 percent during Uribe's first term in office, to 371 last year according to the government. That may even be below Haiti and the tourist haven of Mexico, where kidnappings-for-cash have boomed.

For years, only Colombian vacationers seemed willing to test the waters, at times driving to tourist hot spots in military-escorted caravans. Now that the highways are more secure, they travel in bumper-to-bumper droves, and the foreigners are following.

Changing its image

For the first time, the government is spending heavily to promote the country abroad. To clean up its drugs-and-violence image, it launched last year a long-term, multimillion dollar "Colombia Is Passion" campaign. Promoters hope the icon, a heart with the flowing lines of a flower, will become as easily recognizable as the Canadian maple leaf or Japanese rising sun.

Bolstered by the PR blitz, the Caribbean port city of Cartagena was selected to host the World Tourism Organization's 2007 convention, the travel industry's most important gathering. And the staff of the Lonely Planet backpacker guides picked Colombia as one of this year's 10 hot spots.

Even the U.S. State Department, which for years advised against traveling to Colombia, has softened its travel warning, acknowledging that while dangers persist, the violence in most urban areas has decreased markedly.

In the 1970s, before the emergence of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar and drug-fueled violence shut much of the country off from the world and even most Colombians, it was an obligatory stop for globe-trotting hippies.

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Twice the size of France, Colombia boasts myriad natural attractions, from Amazon jungles to some of the last high-altitude glaciers left in the tropics and pristine beaches along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Visitors can see pre-Columbian archaeological ruins and still-vibrant indigenous cultures as well as great museums in Medellín and Bogotá.

Best of all, for now there are precious few camera-clickers to share them all with, because the boom still has a ways to go before catching up with more traveled South American destinations.

Colombia is the continent's second most populous country, after Brazil, but ranked seventh in the region's tourist arrivals in 2004, according to the World Tourism Organization.

"The only people you have to share the swaying wax palms and sweaty salsa clubs with are a handful of hardy travelers and crowds of friendly Colombians," said Michael Kohn, author of a new Colombia guidebook for Lonely Planet.

The biggest tourist magnet is the 16th-century walled city of Cartagena, whose reputation for beachcombing, stunning colonial architecture and all-night partying has long made it one of the Caribbean's top destinations.

The city is luring back the attention of the international cruise lines, whose deep-pocketed passengers are the most coveted in the tourist trade.

To make room for all the tourists, a record 45 new hotels were built in Colombia last year, many in Cartagena and nearby beach resorts, according to the country's hotel-trade association.

Drug violence remains

Getting too far off the beaten path still entails huge risks, however.

Even most Colombians won't visit the Sierra Macarena National Park or the jungle-fringed beaches along the Pacific Ocean, areas effectively controlled by leftist guerrillas battling soldiers sent in to eradicate their coca fields and clandestine drug labs. And a May massacre by soldiers of 10 anti-narcotic police near the city of Cali sparked allegations of army collusion with cocaine dealers.

And even Colombia's urban centers remain far from a casual traveler's paradise. The tourism infrastructure, particularly Bogotá's international airport, lags behind other Latin American destinations. While homicides have dropped to their lowest level in two decades, many life-insurance policies still won't cover travel to Colombia.

Frommer's and Fodor's, two venerable guidebook companies, have never published a Colombia guide and neither has any plans to do so now. Indeed, for most mainstream travelers, Colombia's image as a haven for drug-traffickers, kidnappers and guerrillas remains firmly branded in their minds.

"Travel decisions are based almost entirely on perception and unfortunately in Colombia's case some of those perceptions square up too dangerously with reality," said Laura Kidder, editorial director for Fodor's. "I wouldn't recommend the place for a family vacation just yet."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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