Above: Cartagena’s historic centre (Caribbean Journal photo: KU)
By Alexander Britell
Santo Domingo. Havana. Kingston. Port-au-Prince. San Juan.
These are the cities that are typically mentioned in conversations about the largest Caribbean cities.
But there’s another city on the Caribbean Sea that’s among the biggest in the region, one that has heretofore remained under the radar both as an investment and tourism destination.
Above: Cartagena’s colonial charms have long drawn South American travelers.
That’s now starting to change, though, as Cartagena, Colombia is swiftly growing as a regional tourism and investment hub.
Cartagena de Indias, Colombia’s Caribbean metropolis with just under 1 million inhabitants, has long been a getaway for South Americans, but the city has set its sights far wider.
In the last year, several major hotel brands have made their first forays into the city, most notably Viceroy, which is partnering with KIT Capital to develop a onetime convent into a luxury hotel and Spanish hotel giant Melia, which just last week announced plans to open a new hotel in the city.
There are more: in February, Radisson opened its 233-room Cartagena Ocean Pavilion hotel, and Starwood is planning to open a Sheraton beachfront hotel in 2015.
And at the end of last year, Karisma announced plans to launch its new hotel brand, Allure, in Cartagena, with two new boutique properties.
But opening hotels is one thing; attracting tourists is another.
Above: the Ananda Hotel Boutique, one of the city’s leading small hotels
The latter got a major jolt in 2012, when JetBlue, which has been rapidly growing its Caribbean footprint, launched thrice-weekly flights from New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport.
And last month, the carrier announced that it would be launching daily nonstop service to the destination out of Fort Lauderdale beginning at the end of October.
The two JetBlue entires are not insignificant; while any tourism industry needs pioneering hotel developers, it’s the airlines that often provide among the most accurate (and underappreciated) barometers of a city’s potential.
That’s because airlines need to look at a variety of factors, from tourism infrastructure to hotel stock to safety to language accessibility, when considering entering a market.
JetBlue, for example, has a team whose primary responsibility is to look at a market and examine these kinds of factors, most importantly the current airlift situation.
“We spend a lot of time running the numbers and the data. We have a team whose entire job is to look at a market and see how many passengers they have now, and if we added service, how much it would stimulate, and how much we could bring to the table,” JetBlue’s director for the Latin America and Caribbean region, Chad Meyerson, told Caribbean Journal last year.
Of course, JetBlue isn’t alone, as Maria Claudia Lacouture, president of Proexport Colombia, the Colombian government’s official investment and tourism promotion arm, pointed out to Caribbean Journal.
“Government initiatives have lead to higher numbers of cruise passengers and increased demand for new flight routes, most recently with JetBlue and Avianca from the US, and Copa, Insel Air and Avianca from the Caribbean,” she told Caribbean Journal. “To meet this demand, developers have the opportunity to invest in either boutique hotels in Cartagena’s colonial center or through large-scale international hospitality chains.” (Indeed, US-based Spirit Airlines, ahead of the curve, first launched flights to the destination from Fort Lauderdale in 2008).
Of course, the city remains in its developmental stage.
Between January and April, for example, Cartagena hotels were at just 60 percent occupancy, according to Proexport, a number that certainly has room for improvement.
“But there’s still potential for growth,” Lacouture said, pointing to another new milestone: the opening, later in 2014, of a new convention centre.
And Meyerson seems bullish on the destination.
“Cartagena offers relaxation at world-class resorts, a charming, walkable historic district, tons of water sports and warm hospitality from the local population. These are all attributes that Americans are interested in experiencing, and that travelers are sharing through word of mouth and in social media circles,” Meyerson told Caribbean Journal.
“ProExport has also done a remarkable job of showcasing Colombia as a beautiful, well-developed and safe destination. JetBlue’s success in the New York to Cartagena market led us to introduce service from Ft Lauderdale as well. We believe this market caters to both the local Colombian community that enjoys vacationing in Cartagena and South Floridians who want to discover new vacation destinations with which they may not be as familiar.”
It’s no secret that the tourism industry is increasingly competitive for the Caribbean, whose economy relies on tourism more than any other industry. That competition has manifested itself both in competition between destinations within the region and between other warm-weather spots around the world.
Cartagena’s case, as a burgeoning tourism magnet on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, could prove to be both a reminder and a model for the rest of the region; a reminder that new hubs continue to sprout up, equally close to the United States; and a model, as a Caribbean city that has, through attractive investment policy, managed to draw new, large brands that had largely never considered it before.
And if Cartagena’s recent trends continue, a city that has kept a low-profile regionally may find itself at the top of the conversation.