Impact International / April 15, 1997
By Larry Luxner
CARTAGENA, Colombia -- During most of its 465-year history, the ancient walled city of Cartagena has had to put up with Spanish conquistadores, hurricanes, pirates, civil war and disease. These days, Cartagena's biggest headaches -- especially for the city's fledgling cruise-ship industry -- have more to do with U.S. foreign policy and Colombia's unfortunate reputation as one of the world's most violent nations.
On Feb. 28, the Clinton administration "decertified" Colombia, saying its efforts to fight drug-smuggling were inadequate and lumping it with other decertified pariah nations such as Afghanistan, Burma, Syria and Iran. That infuriated President Ernesto Samper, who has been accused by the U.S. State Department and many Colombians of accepting up to $6 million in campaign money from the Cali cocaine cartel.
"We're aware that Colombia's image problem is tarnishing our ability to attract tourists from the United States," said Luis Fernando Caņizares, president of the local chapter of Cotelco, the Colombian Hotel Association. "It is very important to tell Americans that Colombia is not a city. It's a huge country. These incidents are happening very far from Cartagena."
Adds Roberto Lemattre, director of Cartagena's Pro-Turismo organization: "We do have an image problem. We're conscious of certain factors that can help us bring visitors to Cartagena. Mainly we're thinking of Latin Americans or people with Latin roots in South Florida. We don't have the resources to target all of the United States. That would take millions and millions of dollars, and we don't have the resources right now."
To get around that, Cartagena has adopted a strategy of distancing itself from Colombia and marketing the ancient city as a Caribbean cruise-ship destination. Beginning Apr. 1, area hotels will also begin charging a "voluntary" 80-cent-a-night room tax. That, along with contributions from major airlines, will help fund a $1 million media promotional campaign aimed at luring U.S. visitors to this port city, famous for its Spanish colonial architecture, nightlife and palm-fringed beaches.
In 1995, about 500,000 foreign visitors came to Cartagena, 40% of them from Western Europe; most of the rest came from other Latin American countries and Canada.
"We don't see too many Americans here. This is going to change when we become a cruise-ship hub," says Jean-Pierre Etcheberrigaray, manager of the new 250-room Hotel Inter-Continental Cartagena, inaugurated three months ago. "Cartagena is only two hours and 15 minutes from Miami. We have no hurricanes, no tornadoes and no crime. Why isn't tourism booming? I think it has to do with the culture. The Colombians have been keeping Cartagena as its best-kept secret."
As part of efforts to grab a bigger slice of the Caribbean cruise-ship market, Cartagena wants to build a duty-free shopping center as well as a new passenger terminal. Construction on the 40-store shopping center -- designed by Miami-based architects Bermello Ajamil & Partners -- should begin early this year and finish by late 1998.
The retail center is part of a four-part master plan that also includes dredging the port to receive large cruise ships, as well as the development of a home-port cruise-ship terminal. Cartagena now gets 100,000 passengers a year, though this is projected to jump to 234,000 by 2000 and 548,000 by 2015.
"We're hoping that Cartagena can become a home port," says Caņizares. "Even though cruise-ship passengers spend only six hours here, it's good business for Cartagena just being touched by cruise-ship lines.:
Concerning Washington's decertification, Caņizares says "the U.S. has acknowledged that Colombia has made a tremendous effort to try to contain the drug problem, but cannot accept that our president was elected with drug money. Once this guy is gone, Cartagena will take off again."