There’s no doubt about it: The snow-capped Andean summits, pristine Caribbean coast, lush Amazon jungle, quaint colonial towns, mysterious archaeological ruins and ample opportunities for outdoor adventures make Colombia a beautiful, interesting and exciting place to visit. Despite this, until recently Colombia was largely avoided by tourists due to concerns over violence, drug trafficking and the country’s ongoing civil war. Today, however, is a different story, as Colombia continues to transform itself from a place haunted by war, rebels and gangs to a vibrant and largely peaceful country capable of attracting – and charming – tourists.
Tourism Numbers Increasing
As word gets out that Colombia is no longer the dangerous country it was in the 1980s and 1990s, more and more tourists are giving it a try. Data from the World Trade Organization and The World Bank show that international tourist arrivals have increased almost every year since 2002.
The rise in tourists stems in part from a deliberate national rebranding campaign designed to let people know that Colombia is a safe place to visit. An official tourism slogan launched in the late 2000s declared “The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay,” which in some ways quietly acknowledged the country’s troubled past, while at the same time reassured potential tourists that those days are over.
Still Work to be Done
In addition to successfully changing its image, statistics support the perception that Colombia has been able to stem some of its violence. Numbers for extortion, kidnapping and murder have significantly decreased, while numbers for employment, foreign direct investment, economic growth and international tourist arrivals have experienced growth. But that doesn’t mean that Colombia’s work is done.
Drug trafficking-related violence, for example, remains a problem for Colombia, though it tends to affect those with direct involvement with the drug trade, rather than tourists. Street crime is still an issue, so travelers are advised to use caution when using ATMs after dark (and avoid them altogether on deserted streets), to use taxis only if they or someone they trust has called for the service, and to avoid traveling at night on certain routes (e.g., travel guide publisher Lonely Planet recommends avoiding night travel on the road from Popayan to Pasto, the border with Ecuador, and the route from Bucaramanga to Santa Marta). And, as when traveling anywhere, at home or abroad, avoid carrying large amounts of cash or wearing flashy, expensive jewelry. Keep other valuables – such as cameras and phones – discreetly tucked out of sight.
In the Global Peace Index rankings, Columbia ranks 150 out of 162, fairly low but not among the world's most dangerous countries. (By contrast, Mexico is 138 and the U.S.,101. Canada, one of the safest countries, is 7.) The index measures the relative peacefulness of 162 nations worldwide (representing 99% of the world’s population), as compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace. Rankings are based on 22 qualitative and quantitative indicators, including ongoing domestic and international conflict; societal safety and security (including crime rates); and militarization.
As always, it depends on where you go. Six cities in Colombia did make "Business Insider's" "50 Most Violent Cities in the World" list (assembled in 2013), including Cali, Cúcuta and Medellin. So, by the way, did New Orleans, St. Louis, Detroit and Baltimore, in the U.S. By contrast, Cartagena and Bogotá, with lower homicide rates than these American cities, did not make the list.
What Does the U.S. Department of State Say?
The U.S. Department of State issues travel alerts and warnings on an ongoing basis. Travelers to any destination should check for notices before leaving the country and while abroad, if possible. A recent Colombia Travel Warning (issued in Nov. 2014) notes that while many tourists can travel without problem to and within Colombia, certain areas should be avoided and caution should be exercised.
The warning states: “Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies and volunteer work. Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogotá, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Medellin, and Cali. However, violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural and urban areas.” [Read the whole Travel Warning here.]
The Bottom Line
The number of international tourist arrivals in Colombia has quadrupled during the past decade. This is due in part to Colombia’s efforts to not only improve its image, but to confront its problems so that not just its image is fixed.
For example, Colombia is working to craft peace deal that would end 50 years of fighting with FARC – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. In December 2014, FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire, but two years of peace talks have not reached resolution and the future is still unclear. Colombia's new 2014 Miss Universe, Pauline Vega, has been invited to sit in on the talks, which adds to the feeling of hope that peace may come.
It’s difficult to use the word “safe” when describing an entire country. There are spots in Colombia that tourists should avoid, but it’s important to remember that there are probably places in your own city that you would want to avoid at night. You can help ensure you have a safe and enjoyable visit by heeding the travel alerts and warnings issued by the U.S. Department of State, avoiding known areas of danger, sticking to popular (and populated) tourist destinations, and using common sense – just as you would at home.
For alternative tourist destinations south of the U.S. border, see Find Latin America's Safest, Cheapest Countries.