If Colombia needed any further evidence it has brushed off the tarnished reputation of its past, Delta Air Lines Inc. provided it in April with the announcement that it will start two new flights from Atlanta to the cities of Cartagena and Medellin.
Already flying into Bogota, Delta was drawn deeper into the country by the sheer numbers: Some 43 percent of traffic between the two countries comes from cities outside the capital, said Liz Savadelis, a Delta spokeswoman.
“Delta’s partnership presence in Colombia is limited, so organic growth is the most viable way to serve interior Colombia,” Ms. Savadelis said.
Colombia’s economy has grown at an average rate of 4-plus percent over the last decade, and travelers have taken note: visitors surpassed the 4 million mark for the first time ever last year, and the rate of passenger growth is consistently surpassing already-strong Delta markets in the region.
“U.S. traffic to Colombia has expanded at rates higher than Brazil and Mexico over the past 14 years, driven by improving security conditions and economic growth which has outpaced Brazil, Mexico and Argentina,” Ms. Savadelis told Global Atlanta by email. The flight is subject to government approval.
Colombian ties with the U.S. are growing consistently stronger, buoyed initially by the U.S. commitment to Colombia’s fight against narco-trafficking and now sustained in part by a free trade agreement that entered into force in 2012.
During a recent visit to Atlanta, the country’s ambassador underscored the importance of U.S. backing to defeating organized crime and bringing the country of more than 40 million people back to a growth trajectory. Over the next 20 years, the country will be spending more than $25 billion on road infrastructure and $10 billion to bring the Internet to rural areas, and those are just a few of its plans to spread growth more evenly among the population.
Known for its Spanish colonial architecture and beautiful beaches, Cartagena has benefited immensely from the country’s newfound stability as guerrilla fighters have been beaten back into the remote regions of the country, said Rafael Maldonado, a Cartagena native who lived in Atlanta for 33 years and runs Contactos SAS, a travel company based in Cartagena.
“Cartagena is an enchanted city full of history and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city has a wall built by the Spaniards to protect their shipments of gold and emeralds from pirates and corsairs and the British Armada. Even George Washington’s brother came down our coast looking for treasures and domination,” he said. “The city has world-class hotels, and within the city walls you will find boutique hotels operating in old Spanish colonial mansions.”
Even Disney cruise ships dock there now, but what’s less known is that most Americans visitors are coming to the region for business as investments in natural resources and infrastructure continue. Near Cartagena lies the new Reficar oil refinery, financed in part by the Export-Import Bank of the United States, which is drawing many American engineers. Not too far away from Cartagena is a coal mine operated by Alabama-based Drummond Company Inc.
Mr. Maldonado himself is investing in other sectors and sees limitless potential in his hometown.
“Besides tourism, I see a lot of opportunities in other areas here. This city is booming. Everything needs to be built in Colombia. It’s the new frontier for American companies. It really is,” he said.
Perhaps most emblematic of Colombia’s transformation, though, is the city of Medellin, located in a valley to the northeast of Bogota. Known as the murder capital of the world and the home base of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar in the early 1990s, the city has recast itself as a hub for urban inclusion and technological innovation.
Nonstop flights are key to fueling the momentum that this story has brought about, said Nicolas Mejia, commercial director atAirPlan, the company that owns and operates the José María Córdova International Airport in Medellin.
“Some people do not come to Medellin from far away because they say, ‘I have to go through three stops. To lose 48 hours of my work, I’d rather not go there.’ So if I want to facilitate the city to grow, I have to try to get the best connections so the passengers get there sooner, faster and in the most convenient way,” Mr. Mejia told Global Atlanta during a visit to the city in October.
At the time, the Delta flight had not been announced but discussions were already under way.
Mr. Maldonado said Delta had been looking into the flight for more than a decade and suspected that the Colombian government kicked in some money to help the airline market the new destinations in the U.S. Mr. Mejia said the government’s trade and investment agency, ProColombia, does offer airlines incentives for opening new routes, as does the Medellin airport, which can waive landing, parking and terminal fees.
Delta wouldn’t comment on incentives other than to say they weren’t the driving force behind its decision for the new flights.
Not only will travelers from Medellin be able to reach Atlanta, but they can also avail themselves of Delta’s global connectivity from Atlanta.
“We are well-positioned to serve the majority of traffic between Medellin and the U.S./Europe in the evening southbound and morning northbound time frames, while the daytime Cartagena flight is well-timed for U.S. leisure travelers,” Ms. Savadelis said.
Delta might also be eligible for route-development incentives under a scheme introduced last year at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, but that wouldn’t be determined until the flights are approved and Delta applies, Reese McCranie, an airport spokesman, told Global Atlanta.
Either way, Colombia seems to have the demand to justify the investment. During his February speech in Atlanta, Colombian Ambassador Luis Villegas noted that the international flight frequencies have doubled from 500 to 1,000 in the last three years and that thousands of hotel rooms were under construction in Cartagena.
“I think this is going to be one of the sources of growth in the future. We can become a country of 10 million tourists,” he said.
Andres Vargas, Colombia’s consul general in Atlanta, says that the number of international visitors to Colombia in the last decade has increased at a rate four times higher than the world average.
“I think these additional flights will make even stronger the business and touristic ties, not only between the city of Atlanta and Colombia but also with the United States,” Mr. Vargas told Global Atlanta. “It is further evidence of the importance that our country has gained in the region as one of the most preferred tourist destinations and business centers for international visitors and foreign investors.”