I am writing this a few hours before boarding JetBlue’s non-stop flight from JFK to Cartagena. Launched in November 2012, it’s the only direct service from New York to one of Colombia’s most popular destinations. The fact that JetBlue’s A320s are flying full most of the time proves that the airline’s move paid off.
The US carrier was one of the first companies who bet on Colombia’s rise from a turbulent and violent past but it wasn’t the only one; thanks to the signing of several free-trade agreements and fiscal incentives, direct foreign investment in the country has been growing at around 6 per cent throughout 2013.
It’s no secret that Latin America is growing as a whole. But after many years of being the black sheep of the region, the fact that the international community is realising there’s a whole different country that’s far from just narco-telenovelas and beauty pageants, is a source of pride for us Colombians. For over 50 years we built up a horrible status as one of the most violent nations, and in this world reputation is everything.
Take Mexico, for example. It has been terrorised by a drug war for the past 10 years, a conflict that has left over 60,000 people dead, yet it managed to attract 23 million visitors last year – and that’s 20 million more than Colombia. Why? Because the Mexicans are great at branding their nation, using food, culture and beaches to distract attention. I’m deeply in love with the country and some of my closest friends live there. I admire how they’ve managed to hold their reputation during hard times, something Colombians should learn from. We can also learn more from our immediate neighbours too.
Panama is definitely ranking as a top destination for 2014. It has been building strong relations with brands such as the Ace Hotel, who are about to open their first operation in Latin America before the end of the year in the Casco Viejo district of Panama City. It will be just in time for the regional World Economic Forum that will take place in April. And I assure you nobody will be mentioning Manuel Noriega or the money-laundering scandals that have stained the country in the past. While, of course, Pablo Escobar and cocaine are the first things that come to mind after hearing Colombia.
So how do you clean up decades of bad rep? For us, it’s an ongoing conundrum and one that takes time to solve. Until last year my country’s promotional slogans were “Colombia is passion” and “The only risk is wanting to stay” – the latter cleverly acknowledges our past while inviting visitors to explore a new, progressive country. I personally liked that campaign but this year Proexport – the entity in charge of promoting tourism – released a new one under the mottos “Magical Realism” and “The answer is Colombia.” It feels like this campaign was done in a rush and without having taken the time to ask ourselves the right questions.
Let’s hope that the economy keeps growing as it has and that the peace deal with the FARC guerrillas is signed soon. Because no matter how hard we’ve tried to clean up our image and rebrand the country, it’s frustrating to see we are still far from the goal.
Santiago Rodríguez Tarditi is New York bureau chief for Monocle.