Colombia looks to attract tourists with peace, currency

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia hopes to position itself as a top-tier tourist destination in a bid to attract foreign visitors ahead of a possible peace deal with Marxist rebels, with its affordability bolstered by a weak currency, the head of the country’s tourism and export promotion agency said.

Maria Claudia Lacouture, head of ProColombia, gestures during a Reuters interview in Bogota, Colombia October 20, 2015. REUTERS/ John Vizcaino

The nation’s 51 years of armed conflict, which sparked travel warnings from the United States and Europe, have limited the growth of tourism, said Maria Claudia Lacouture, head of ProColombia.

“At this point most of the limits Colombia has for growth in tourism are the warnings that other countries have,” Lacouture told Reuters in an interview in Bogota on Tuesday.

“The moment we have peace, those warnings won’t have weight - their reason for existing is the rebels and insecurity. That will allow tourists to start to see Colombia in a different light and for the sector to grow.”

The South American country, considered one of the world’s most biodiverse places, is publicizing its beaches on the Caribbean and Pacific, its verdant Andean mountains and cosmopolitan cities rife with shopping opportunities.

The government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the leadership of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have been in peace talks for three years and recently vowed to reach a final deal by March 23, 2016.

Despite the conflict between FARC, right-wing paramilitaries and government troops - which has killed more than 220,000 people - tourism has become a driver for growth during the last five years because of security improvements.

A 41 percent depreciation in the country’s currency over 12 months has also lowered costs for some visitors, but Lacouture says the country will have to keep up efforts to bring in travelers.

“Though the depreciation presents an opportunity, we can’t believe it’s the solution to generate a larger number of tourists,” she said. “Colombia has to strengthen its advertising and the competitiveness of services and products.”

In 2010 just 2.6 million travelers visited the Andean nation. Last year that figure almost doubled to 4.9 million, Lacouture said, which generated $4.9 billion in spending.

The country hopes to welcome 6 million visitors ready to spend $6 billion by 2018. The sector provides some 1.7 million jobs.

Still, as kidnapping remains a danger from crime gangs and other rebel groups, some fear road trips and opt for costly air travel, putting Colombia off the radar for many tourists.

Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy and Matthew Lewis