MEDELLIN, Colombia – Travel and tourism operators based in the United States touted this northwestern Colombian city as an outstanding destination after a three-day visit to learn about its history of resilience and transformation.
The US Tour Operators’ Association, whose members earn a combined $13.5 billion in annual revenue from their provision of tours, packages and custom arrangements and service nearly 8 million travelers a year, sent 50 representatives from 23 companies this week to experience that Andean city’s tourist offering first-hand.
USTOA President Terry Dale told EFE in an interview that the organization began exploring new proposals five years ago in a bid to lend a different focus to its tourism development efforts.
That led to the emergence of Colombia – and Medellin in particular – as an exemplary destination.
Dale said Medellin stood out in particular because of its library parks, public transport system, museums and gardens.
The tour operators’ visit began with a series of activities at the Colombian Paso Fino Breeders’ Association (Asdesilla) due to that city’s interest in promoting equestrian tourism, the mayor’s office confirmed.
The USTOA’s president said the hospitality of the people of Medellin was strikingly genuine and something that travelers would be able to feel when they visit.
He added that the Museum of Antioquia and the adjacent Botero Plaza in Medellin’s downtown also made a positive impression on the delegation and that the operators enjoyed a unique opportunity there because renowned Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s granddaughter, Alejandra Quintana, served as hostess for their visit.
The executive vice president of tour operator Collette, Paula Twidale, said for her part that the delegation sought to gather as much information as possible about the city through hands-on activities that would allow them to construct more complete tourism packages, offer Medellin as part of broader South American tours and create partnerships with Colombian colleagues.
She said the goal was to gather selling points for Medellin, a city that through improvements in the areas of culture, education, social inclusion and public safety has transformed itself from the world’s most violent urban area in 1991 into the planet’s most innovative city in 2013 (according to the non-profit Urban Land Institute).
Indeed, one of the areas that most captivated the tour operators was Comuna 13, a neighborhood marked for years by violence but which now is frequently visited by foreigners and whose main attraction are outdoor escalators that transport thousands of low-income residents every day to and from their homes located on steep hillsides.
The visit to that part of Medellin included a tour of the neighborhood’s graffiti art and a hip-hop performance.
“Ciro,” an artist with the hip-hop group Censura Maestra and member of the Casa Colacho cultural collective, headed up the meeting between the US tour operators and the local community in Medellin’s most stigmatized neighborhood.
The artist said it was important for tourists
to keep visiting Comuna 13 so they get a sense of the changes it has undergone from the people who live there and their artistic expressions of “resistance.”
“Through art, we’re telling the world it was possible to transform one of Latin America’s most violent neighborhoods into a focal point of inspiration through dance, painting and music. That was how the neighborhood left behind its past of violence and death,” Ciro told EFE.
For the tour operators, who also visited the city’s Botanical Garden and a coffee plantation in Fredonia, a town 56 kilometers (35 miles) from Medellin, meetings with local residents are important because of the USTOA’s emphasis on getting to know the inhabitants of the destinations it offers.
Dale, who described Medellin as a “magical place,” said he still did not have a forecast for the expected growth in the number of US tourist visits to Medellin or to two other promising Colombian destinations, Bogota and Cartagena, which he said are equally interesting to the tour operators.
Of the 262,000 foreigners who visited Medellin in 2016, nearly 76,000 arrived from the US, according to the Medellin Convention Bureau.
In 2016, Medellin experienced the fastest growth (24 percent) in the number of foreign visitors of any Colombian city.
That rate was double the average growth in foreign arrivals for the nation as a whole.