Is Colombia Safe For Tourists?

The sun sets over Medellin. (Photo: Thinkstock)

It was an armed robbery gone terribly wrong. An American tourist on vacation was shot and killed in Colombia in late September.

John Mariani, 65, a Long Island resident visiting the city of Medellin on vacation, was fatally wounded when armed men ambushed the taxi he and a friend were riding in en route from their hotel to a nearby bar.

El Poblano, the neighborhood where the attack took place, is one of Medellin’s wealthiest and supposedly safest neighborhoods. It is a popular place for locals and tourists alike where bustling bars and restaurants line quaint tree lined street.

Police said the assailants attempted to take Mariani’s personal belongings and when he resisted, they shot him.

In 2011, a British man was shot and killed under very similar circumstances in the upmarket suburb of Belen when two men attempted to rob him while he sat in stationary traffic.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Colombia was considered an extremely dangerous place. Drug gangs ruled the streets and each day brought new reports of murders, shoot outs, kidnappings and drug busts. It was a country seemingly off-limits to American tourists.

Medellin is still considered a major crime hub, however, it has come a long way since the 80s heyday of it’s most notorious resident—the drug lord and cartel leader Pablo Escobar—when more than a dozen people were killed daily on the city streets.

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In 2014, the city had a homicide rate of 26.1 per 100,000 residents, which, to put into context, is around five times higher than the U.S average. Yet it is still way below that of American cities like Detroit, New Orleans, Newark or Baltimore. And in 2013 there were 250 kidnappings, which sounds like a lot - but not if you compare it to Mexico, which had over 1,500.

Medellin is not the only city that has seen improvement in its crime rates.
Historically, the capital city of Bogota has one of the country’s lowest homicide rates – a figure that has been gradually declining over the past decade.
And while Santiago de Cali, the third largest city in the country, has long been one of the most violent, they too experienced a reduction in murder rates between 2013 and 2014.

This drop in crime is largely due to the massive decrease in drug production and trafficking within the country. In the past 10 years, the U.S led ‘War On Drugs’, has resulted in a 60% drop in production, with countries like Peru now exporting more drugs than Colombia.

In fact Medellin, the country’s second largest city, has been experiencing somewhat of a tourist boom in recent years, due mainly to its beautiful surroundings, temperate climate and rich history and culture.

The Palace of Culture in Medellin. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Foreign visitors to Colombia increased 14% in 2014, according to the country’s trade ministry, with just under 3 million people traveling to the country. Around 10% of those visitors were to Medellin.

“Over the last decade, Colombia has steadily grown as a tourism destination for travelers worldwide,” says Maria Claudia Lacouture, President of ProColombia, the government entity in charge of promoting international tourism and investment.

“From the U.S. alone, we saw an increase of 9.5 percent in the number of arrivals from 2013 to 2014, and we have seen this number growing even stronger during the first semester of 2015.”

The number of direct flights from the U.S has also increased to almost 300 a week, and many major hotel chains have set up shop in the country’s thriving cities - W Hotels, Hilton and Sofitel to name a few.

Four Seasons recently announced plans for not just one, but two luxury properties that will be opening in Bogota in the next few months.

Related: Big Dreams Brewing—Inspiring Coffee Farmers in Colombia

Tens of thousands of American citizens now travel to Colombia each year without incident, but the U.S State Department recently updated their travel warning to Americans traveling to the country, stating that despite security improving significantly in recent years there are still risks, and visitors are advised to be vigilant and exercise extreme caution when traveling to the region.

The State Department website states that “small towns and rural areas of Colombia can be extremely dangerous due to the presence of terrorists and criminal elements, including armed gangs,” and advises that “terrorist groups and other criminal organizations continue to kidnap and hold civilians, including foreigners, for ransom.”

Sticking to traveling within the major cities, and well known tourist spots is strongly suggested. (Photo: Thinkstock)

They recommend only driving outside of cities during daylight hours, avoiding traveling on buses within the country and flying between larger cities.
If you are traveling to Colombia, be sure to read the up-to-date information about the country on the U.S State Department website and enroll in STEP (the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) for continued updates before and during your trip.

But some tour operators say that demand is surging despite September’s murder.

“Colombia is absolutely one of the bright spots of South America. Bookings over the past year are up 70%, everyone Is calling and wanting to go so the appetite to go to Colombia is certainly real,” Leigh Barnes, Vice President of Intrepid Travel, one of the leading adventure tour companies in the region, said.

“With regards to the incident last week, we haven’t had any inquiries from our customers at all. All of our trips are operating as planned, safely and smoothly. We would never operate a trip if we didn’t think it was safe.”