Tourism in Colombia is an important sector in the country's economy. Colombia has major attractions as a tourist destination, such as Cartagena and its historic surroundings, which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List; the insular department of San Andrés, Providencia y Santa Catalina; and Santa Marta and the surrounding area. Fairly recently, Bogotá, the nation's capital, has become Colombia's major tourist destination because of its improved museums and entertainment facilities and its major urban renovations, including the rehabilitation of public areas, the development of parks, and the creation of an extensive network of cycling routes. With its very rich and varied geography, which includes the Amazon and Andean regions, the llanos, the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, and the deserts of La Guajira, and its unique biodiversity, Colombia also has major potential for ecotourism.
In the early to mid-1980s, international tourism arrivals in Colombia reached nearly 1.4 million per year. Although they decreased by more than half thereafter, they have recovered at rates of more than 10 percent annually since 2002, reaching 1.9 million visitors in 2006. Tourism usually has been considered a low-growth service industry in Colombia because of internal violence, but in 2006 the country earned US$2 billion from international tourism. Tourists visiting Colombia from abroad came mainly from the United States (24.5 percent), followed by Venezuela (13.4 percent), Ecuador (9.1 percent), Spain (6.4 percent), and Mexico (4.9 percent). Approximately 90 percent of foreign tourists arrive by air, 10 percent by land transportation, and a tiny share by sea.
The recovery of tourism has been helped by the Democratic Security and Defense Policy of Álvaro Uribe Vélez (president, 2002–6, 2006–10) and the so-called tourist caravans (caravanas turísticas), in which military forces provide reinforced protection on previously scheduled days to roads reaching major holiday attractions. The Democratic Security Policy, as it is known, is aimed at reestablishing control over all of the nation's territory, fighting illegal drugs and organized crime, and strengthening the justice system. The government also has been working toward generating a significant recovery in international tourism through Proexport Colombia, the public export-promotion agency. The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism is the Colombian ministry in charge of tourism affairs.
Popular times to visit Colombia include the most famous festivals such as the Cali's Fair, the Barranquilla's Carnival, the Bogota Summer Festival, the Ibero-American Theater Festival and the Flower Festival is when the most foreign tourists go to Colombia. Many people visit Colombia during Christmas time and the celebrations surrounding the Independence of Colombia. The Ministry of Tourism considers high seasons the Holy Week, summer (June, July, August, September) and Christmas season. During the holy week many travel to the Caribbean Region of Colombia or visit popular landmarks like Las Lajas Cathedral, Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, the towns of Santa Cruz de Mompox, Guamal or Popayán where Roman Catholic traditions and rituals are performed, among others.
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“In the middle ages people were tourists because of their religion, whereas now they are tourists because tourism is their religion.”
—Robert Runcie (b. 1921)