To do so wouldn’t be easy. Four decades in the grip of drug cartels and guerilla and paramilitary groups had debilitated the government, institutions and infrastructure, and Colombians themselves; it had also inhibited development. Foreigners’ perceptions of Colombia had been adversely affected, too. From nearly-failed state to kidnapping capital of the world, the superlatives attached to descriptions of the country were never positive.*
PROEXPORT, Colombia’s government entity charged with the responsibility of promoting tourism, foreign investment, and exports, realized the challenge of changing perceptions. The only way it would be successful, said Maria Claudia Lacouture in a recent conversation we had in New York City, was by confronting those perceptions head on.
The resulting campaign was framed by the tagline: “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay.” “The country had changed,” said Lacouture during our interview. “The problem was that people didn’t know it had changed. We had to tell them. We had to show them.”
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An important part of the “tell them, show them” strategy was to disseminate authentic stories, rather than simply craft and convey sunny, upbeat messaging from a PR and marketing firm in Miami or New York, where the “realities” of Colombia would be abstract at best. It took PROEXPORT a few more years to fully develop its plan, but in late 2011, it contacted about three dozen bloggers and invited them to become Colombia’s “official travel bloggers.” The bloggers who accepted launched the program in February 2012.
Lacouture explained that while PROEXPORT was initially open to the idea of inviting any travel blogger to apply for a position with the program, it quickly became evident that important differences existed between the bloggers who were living in the country as expats and those bloggers who had either traveled to Colombia previously or who wanted to travel to Colombia. Passion, sense of place, and a better understanding of the historical and cultural contexts of their experiences were three main reasons why PROEXPORT ultimately contracted expat bloggers for the program.
Richard McColl, a UK citizen who has lived in Colombia since 2007, is one of the official Colombia travel bloggers. “I am far more of a travel and news journalist than a blogger,” says McColl, who has reported for the BBC, “but it was something I was looking at delving further into and this spurred me on. [A]s you can imagine, it is pretty interesting to be involved in something of this nature that seems so progressive in terms of conventional tourism marketing for a country.”
Diana Holguin, another member of the program, says that she started her blog about Colombian gastronomy as a hobby several years ago. “I was really excited to have been invited to join the program,” she says. “The fact that [my blog] has grown so much and got the attention of PROEXPORT is quite an accomplishment for me.” Holguin, a Colombian-American who lived outside of Colombia for over a decade, is representative of the cultural and linguistic diversity of the official travel blogger group. “I’m not a local but I’m also not a tourist or an expat,” she explains. “I’m a big fan of Colombia and even though it isn’t perfect I think it’s a great tourist destination. [F]or me it’s important to participate in something like this, and hopefully get more people to come and not only enjoy the country but also support the country’s ongoing development in tourism and other areas.”
McColl and Holguin are just two of the nearly 40 bloggers who are participating in the program. The official travel bloggers are not paid for their work, but they are provided with trips and resources to write their posts and share images of their travels around the country. “I have received all the help I need with the blog,” says Holguin, adding that PROEXPORT has made stock images available for the bloggers, though most, she thinks, prefer to use their own images. McColl and Holguin say they are obligated to post twice per month about Colombia on their blogs, which isn’t necessarily a challenge, since most of the bloggers in the program are posting far more than that. “There are some really talented and prolific bloggers on board,” says McColl. The bloggers are given “pretty much total freedom” to write what they’d like, Holguin says, as long as the posts have a travel angle and avoid promoting the bloggers’ own businesses (McColl, for example, is the proprietor of a hostel in the town of Mompox).
Lacouture says she and PROEXPORT are pleased with the program so far. Watch our interview to hear her assessment about the official travel blogger program:
*except, perhaps in literature, thanks to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who won the Nobel Prize in 1982.
Post image by TheJourney1972