Hearing from Colombia: Coronavirus and beyond

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Helen Fanthorpe
10/14/2020

With its timeless colonial towns of colourful low-slung houses and cobblestone streets, riotous festivals and amazing wildlife, Colombia is a showstopper of a destination. International flights were approved to return on 1 September, as the country looks forward to welcoming visitors back to its shores. We caught up with Flavia Santoro, President at ProColombia, to learn more about the country’s experience of coronavirus, and what travellers can expect from a visit in the near future.

Chatting with ProColombia’s President, Flavia Santoro

Flavia Santoro, ProColombia President © ProColombia

Q: How would you describe Colombia’s experience of coronavirus?

A: The Colombian government has enacted a swift response to Covid-19 and has kept the toll of infection and death relatively low compared to other Latin American nations.

Our nation took early isolation measures, which allowed us to strengthen the health-system capacities by increasing ICUs and buying emergency supplies and medical equipment. The social distancing implemented throughout the country was also key in slowing the virus infection rate.

However, these measures that aim to save lives, have also had a great impact on our economy. The Government has implemented relief initiatives to assist businesses from different sectors, which include tax waivers, payroll payment assistance and forbearance on social-security obligations. In addition to this, the government has extended lines of credit through government-controlled financial institutions and has reduced interest rates.

Colombia has attempted to find a balance between adequate distancing and economic activity by keeping open sectors that were crucial for the economy and our supply chain, including food, agriculture, financial and essential services.

Starting on 1 September, after 171 days of pandemic and 152 days of isolation, the country will enter into a new phase, which the Government has referred to as a “selective isolation and individual responsibility period”.

This means that all commercial activities will operate again with strict biosecurity protocols. The only restricted activities are bars and events and the consumption of alcohol in public spaces or in commercial establishments.

In addition, tourist activities are once more allowed – there will be no restrictions for air transport or trip roads. It is important to highlight that the Ministry of Health approved the operation of international flights as of 1 September.

Sixteen airports already have the Government’s biosecurity certification, and five of them have the Tourism Biosecurity Certification, which has the support of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

We are confident about the future. We believe that these measures that we have taken to face the pandemic will help Colombia recover its economic and social-growth path once this has passed.

Church of St Peter Claver, Cartagena, Colombia © emperorcesor/Shutterstock

Q: Colombia’s international tourist industry is set to restart in the weeks ahead, with the reopening of Bogotá’s El Dorado airport set for October, and Air Canada confirmed as the first international carrier. What does this mean for the country and Colombians?

A: We are looking forward to welcoming back international flights and travellers, starting with Air Canada, possibly in the month of October. It is a step in the right direction, and we are hopeful that this will be the start of a wider reopening of international markets.

The National Government has made an effort to maintain the great level of connectivity we had accomplished before the pandemic between Colombia’s international airports and main cities around the globe.

These include the deferral of payments and leases for airport concessionaires and a reduction from 19% to 5% on the VAT on airline tickets and gasoline.

Meanwhile, on 1 June, airlines began selling domestic tickets within Colombia and on 21 July the country conducted its first pilot test with passengers between Bucaramanga and Cúcuta, and weeks later Rionegro to Bucaramanga and Pereira to Rionegro, among others.

On the other hand, on 1 September, El Dorado airport in Bogotá restored connectivity with Medellín, Cali, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Pereira, Santa Marta, Bucaramanga, Cúcuta, Montería, San Andrés, Rionegro, Villavicencio and Pasto.

And as I said before, the Ministry of Health approved the operation of international flights as of 1 September.

View of The Rock near the town of Guatape © Jess Kraft/Shutterstock

Q: Who do you expect to be the first travellers to return? Will they be from neighbouring countries first?

A: We believe that the first stage of the industry reactivation will happen with domestic tourism. After that, we expect that regional tourism will continue the recovery scale, so travellers from our neighbouring countries will be the next to return. Also, we are working on attracting the many Colombians living abroad.

Q: What differences can travellers expect when they return to Colombia?

A: Once tourism recovers, travellers will be interested in sustainable natural and cultural experiences that really help them connect with the destination. In this sense, Colombia has a great advantage and should be on everyone’s bucket list for 2021.

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world and is home to more than 1920 species. For that reason, it is an ideal destination for those seeking nature-based activities and experiences.

At ProColombia we are committed to fostering a culture of sustainable and responsible tourism that cares about the environment and local communities.

We expect the post Covid-19 traveller to place a renewed emphasis on hygiene and as such, we have introduced greater measures to ensure the health and safety of visitors when travelling to Colombia. We want them to feel confident when arriving in our country.

We are the first country in Latin America to create the Tourism Biosecurity Certification (Check-in certificado, COVID-19 bioseguro), with the support of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Additionally, the Ministry of Health issued resolutions which included the Biosafety Protocol to manage and control the risk of Covid-19 in Colombia’s hotels, restaurants, airports and aeronautical sector.

For example, El Dorado Airport in Bogotá implemented new measures such as thermal cameras, portable sinks and sanitizing stations at various locations throughout the airport, as well as digital immigration procedures.

Colorful houses in Guatape Colombia © Barna Tanko/Shutterstock

Q: Colombia has become the first country in Latin America to launch a Tourism Biosecurity Stamp, supported by the UNWTO. Can you tell us more about the initiative, its aims, and what it will mean for travellers?

A:Certainly, we are focused on regaining the international traveller’s confidence and trust during this revival phase of Colombian tourism, and as such, the Colombian Government has created the Tourism Biosecurity Certification.

Colombia, with the support of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), is officially the first country in Latin America with this type of certification.

The Tourism Biosecurity Seal, created by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism, with the support of ProColombia, aims to generate trust among travellers, minimizing the risk of viral infection and encouraging tourism throughout the country. The certification, valid for two years, is voluntary and may be used by tourism-related service providers, tourist areas and tourist attractions in order to certify compliance with biosafety protocols and – we hope – regain the confidence of tourists once more.

Sanctuary Las Lajas in Colombia, close to the Ecuador border © Rafal Cichawa/Shutterstock

Q: Does Colombia have any other upcoming initiatives?

A: A few weeks ago, we launched a comprehensive economic reactivation plan for the trade, industry and tourism sectors, under the Government strategy “Commitment to Colombia”.

In this sense, at ProColombia we are working on a recovery plan focusing our efforts on the following priorities:

  • adapting to change,
  • facilitating air travel connectivity,
  • and reinforcing the international traveller’s trust in their ability to safely visit our destinations.

1. Adapting to change: Our Government has implemented relief initiatives to assist businesses from different sectors, which include tax waivers, payroll payment assistance and forbearance on social-security obligations. In addition to this, the government has extended lines of credit through government-controlled financial institutions and has reduced interest rates.

The credit line, Colombia Responds, was launched for the tourism and aviation sectors. It aims to mitigate the impact the pandemic will have on these industries. In addition, we established deadline extensions for taxpayers in the sector and promoted the reduction of import tariffs for some supplies related to the aviation sector. And finally, President Duque announced a new credit line of 1 billion pesos, with a 90 percent Government guarantee. The credit is payable in a five-year term.

On the other hand, at ProColombia we are providing tools to help the travel sector’s companies maintain their businesses through refocusing and resizing strategies, as well as redesigning products and experiences according to new types of consumers and changes in market behaviour.

We launched virtual training through our Export Training Program in Tourism. This tool offers a series of courses in different topics, including biosecurity, tourism packages and sustainability, among others. In three months, around 16,300 tour operators, travel agencies and other companies have participated in the courses and seminars.

2. Facilitating air travel connectivity: We have reduced sales tax on tickets that have Colombia as their origin or destination, applicable to airlines from 19 to 5 percent. On 21 July the country did its first local test flight between Bucaramanga and Cúcuta, two cities located in the northeast of Colombia.

3. Reinforcing the international traveller’s trust in their ability to safely visit and travel within Colombia: ProColombia created and launched a multi-channel campaign in March with the message “Let’s take care now so we can meet again soon”, which is now in its second phase – “We’ll meet soon” – to send an empathic message to our travellers around the world. This last phase has reached twelve international markets and more than 75 million impressions.

With these priorities in mind, we are dedicated to supporting the recovery of Colombia’s tourism industry. We remain optimistic about the future. We believe that the tourist industry, which promotes social and cultural respect, sustainability and joy, will be at the centre of the world’s recovery.

We hope that we can soon welcome back travellers from around the world and share with them Colombia’s immense beauty and charm.

View of the marina and tall apartment buildings in the modern section of Cartagena, Colombia © Jess Kraft/Shutterstock

Q: What does the future hold for Colombian tourism? How do you expect travel in the country to change in the wake of coronavirus?

A:I believe the tourist industry has immense resilience, which will play a crucial role in the recovery of Colombia’s and the world's tourist sector and economy.

Tourism in Colombia has become in the last decade an important source of foreign exchange and employment for the country. Thanks to this President Duque has called the sector “the new petroleum”.

In 2019 alone, 4.5 million non-resident visitors came to the country, an increase of 3 percent compared to 2018. Hotel occupancy was 57 percent (the highest in the last 15 years); we were recognized as the best destination in South America according to the World Travel Awards; and were chosen by the most important association of tour operators in the United States, USTOA, as the trend country to visit in 2020.

This year (2020) also started with good news. We won the Global Big Day, the most important bird-watching competition in the world, for the fourth time in a row. The Webby Awards awarded Colombia.travel (the country's official tourism website) the recognition of the best tourism website in the world. And, finally, for the International Association of Congresses and Conventions (ICCA), Colombia remains among the thirty countries that hold the most events worldwide.

This was undoubtedly a year of high expectations for the sector. However, the appearance of the pandemic caused by Covid-19 forced us to change plans and quickly adapt to the new conditions. In these months, we have been working to strengthen our tourism offer, maintain our connectivity and above all regain the confidence of travellers in our destinations.

We see opportunities in these difficult times, and we believe that Colombia will stand out as a sustainable and trustworthy destination in the region.

Top image: Gold artifacts on display in the Museo del Oro, Bogota © Milosz Maslanka/Shutterstock

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