Offer good international air capacity. Today Colombia has a reference air connectivity for the entire region, since it has recovered 93.9% of the seats and 90.8% of the international frequencies that were registered in February 2020, before the pandemic.
As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Flavia Santoro.
Flavia Santoro is the President of ProColombia, the Colombian government entity responsible for promoting tourism, exports, and foreign direct investment. Santoro graduated as a lawyer from the Javeriana University in Bogotá and holds a Master’s degree in Insurance Law from the same institution.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have always believed that the best way to develop my career is by serving. Serving my family, the company or organization that I work for, and of course, serving my country.
For example, at ProColombia we strive to promote Colombia as a sustainable travel and business destination, and as a world-class provider of goods and services. Therefore, we serve the Colombian business leaders, and we work hand in hand with foreign investors to make sure that their projects in Colombia become successful and profitable business.
We offer our services based on principles of kindness and effectiveness. These allow us to stablish ourselves as the main allies of both the Colombian entrepreneurs and the foreign private sector with interests in our country.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I would say that having the opportunity of being the President of ProColombia has been a milestone in my career, as well as a great honor. Due to this position, I have been able to witness inspiring stories of remarkable Colombian and foreign business leaders that believe in my country.
I am grateful to being able to work with them and see how this joint work changes lives. It’s exciting to watch Colombian goods and services being showcased worldwide and thrilling to attract sustainable investment projects that locate in our territory and change the lives of our communities.
And it’s also exciting to witness the joy of international travelers every time they get in touch with the cultural and natural wealth of my country. Visiting Colombia not only changes the lives of the tourists as we offer unique and sustainable experiences, but it also transforms the lives of the locals, and everyone involved in the tourism chain.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I used to work at an insurance company, and I had to review legally a policy for a ship. It was on a Friday, and I made the mistake of approving the policy without having the reinsurance confirmed. Unfortunately, during the weekend the ship had an accident. It was the first time in my professional life that I stayed up late trying to solve the problem. On Monday the reinsurance was approved, so we did not have any legal compliances. The lessons that I learned are that, when doing business, one should not delay any projects and one should always take into account how to minimize all the possible risks in order to guarantee that any initiative will be successful.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My family! Francisco, my husband, and my children, Francisco Jr., and Lorenzo. They are my pride and joy! They are my inspiration to try to do better every single day. Of course, they support me as I support them on their projects, dreams, and goals. I am sure that without them I would not be here.
Furthermore, I would also like to take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to the President of Colombia, Iván Duque. He gave me the amazing opportunity to be the President of ProColombia and to lead the promotion strategy of our country in order to show Colombia as a leading business and tourism destination in every corner of the world.
It has been a remarkable experience that has enriched me as a professional and as an individual. We have been able to deliver important results in the last few years, due to the joint efforts between the public and the private sectors.
But I would also like to point out that these great results would not be possible without a team that believes in Colombia, and that is fully committed to assist in the most professional way the business leaders we work with.
I certainly believe in joining efforts to achieve ambitious goals. Therefore, teamwork has played a key role throughout my whole career.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
Aware of the immense potential of the country, each of its unique destinations, and the effect of the pandemic, at ProColombia we designed a recovery plan focusing our efforts on the following four priorities, which are based on principles of sustainability, innovation, and trust: connectivity; gradual promotion; training tools for companies; and synergies and alliances.
In that sense, Colombia has understood that due to the current situation, the travel industry shows new trends. For that reason, we worked in a project called “Routed towards innovation” that identifies the most innovative tourist experiences in the country and highlights those qualities that make our destinations unique.
This initiative makes visible 25 innovative and original experiences with the potential to become a tourist attraction, as well as transformative activities aimed at providing the international traveler with unforgettable experiences.
On the other hand, our official travel website, Colombia.travel, has had some improvements to keep inspiring international travelers to come visit Colombia.
In the medium term, we want to offer a direct purchase channel from the webpage trough the tour operators and travel agencies that work with ProColombia. This is a tool that seeks to bring supply closer to the demand and that will provide Colombian entrepreneurs with an additional sales channel that will help them amidst the economic recovery.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
Beyond seeing a “pain point”, what we want is to be more competitive than other markets. We see a lot of opportunities in the tourism field if we adopt innovation skills in the promotion of our country.
I want to highlight another term that we have been trying to adapt through these years and became stronger in the recent year due the pandemic, and it’s the importance of the sustainability in the development of the tourism industry in Colombia and in the world.
As a matter of fact, the sustainability is a concept that we want to put at the heart of the entire tourism value chain, so we are building the foundations for having a sustainable, responsible, and inclusive tourism industry.
The Government of Colombia led two important projects for the sector. The first one is the Tourism Law reformed by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism in which sustainability is the main axis. It formally recognizes that the protection of the environment and local communities is essential for the recovery of the Colombian tourism industry after the pandemic, among other strategies to strengthen the value chain by making it more formal and with outstanding quality.
This new Law supports and integrates the second initiative known as the Sustainable Tourism Policy designed to generate projects for the conservation and protection of natural tourist attractions. This initiative makes us one of the 12 countries in the world with this type of policy.
In that sense, we continue to work on the recovery of the tourism industry with a strong effort to continue implementing sustainable parameters in all tourism activities.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
Of course. First, I want to talk about the Export Tourism Training Program, a ProColombia tool for Colombian entrepreneurs. Due to the pandemic, we transformed this project to a 100% digital interface, so since 2020 it offers virtually a series of courses that include biosafety, innovation, and sustainability, among other topics, to prepare and adjust the offer of the tourism business network. Between January and December 2021, more than 12,800 participants have registered in this program.
As I said before, the sustainability will be a must in the travel industry worldwide. For example, I would like to share with you a project like Xplora Nuquí, an organization made up of women from different Afro-descendant communities of Chocó, a department located in the southwest of Colombia, who adapted their houses to receive international travelers. This is a community project that includes more and more families in the area and that reinforces cultural and musical traditions.
Also, in the department of Meta, a company called Colombia Oculta has created a project called Macarena de Colores. They are a community-led tourism project based in the Serranía de La Macarena. The Serrania de la Macarena is one of the most beautiful natural jewels in Colombia. It is located between the Andes, Amazon, and Orinoco; therefore, the Serrania is a mixture of these three ecosystems in one place. When people visit the “Macarena de Colores” project, they’ll meet some of the most beautiful and sublime natural spots in Colombia, like the famous Caño Cristales (The five-color river) known as ‘the most beautiful river in the world’.
This project has had a great economic and social impact, as it has generated local jobs and productive activities, such as river transportation, guides, horseback riding, peasant gastronomy and rural accommodation.
This project has also become an example of sustainability for the region since, in addition, they have managed to conserve more than 500 hectares of forests that were cut down annually to sustain the communities.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
Without a doubt, my perfect vacation experience would be in Colombia and its Six Tourist Regions. We have something to offer for each type of traveler!
1. GREATER COLOMBIAN CARIBBEAN, MUCH MORE THAN SUN AND SEA. This land of exuberant nature — endless rainforests, permanent snow, desert dunes, and seven-colored seas — is much more than just golden sand and coral reefs. It’s home to fascinating cultures, to indigenous and Raizal peoples, to carnivals and music, to sacred archaeological sites, to García Marquez’s magical realism and the world’s most beautiful colonial city — Cartagena de Indias.
2. COLOMBIAN PACIFIC FLAVORS OF FOREST AND SEA: Colombia’s best kept secret is a megadiverse ecosystem where wild rainforests meet the ocean, where humpback whales take epic journeys to give birth to their calves in Pacifi¬c waters, and sea turtles lay their eggs on vast deserted beaches. With Afro-descendant and ancestral heritage, this region offers world-class cultural activities, thanks to Cali and its salsa, tasty local cuisine, and traditional festivals.
3. WESTERN COLOMBIAN ANDES MOUNTAINS OF COFFEE AND FLOWERS: This region is one of social transformation, looking to the future while preserving tradition. Here you’ll find backdrops made up of majestic coffee-scented mountains, extremely colorful towns, talkative farmers, exotic birds, and flower-covered valleys. This region is home to the Coffee Cultural Landscape and to modern Medellin — the home of Botero, silletera culture, excellent cuisine, and the Colombian fashion industry.
4. COLOMBIAN ANDES LEGENDARY MOORS AND VALLEYS: The historical Andes, are where both colonization and the path to liberation began. This land boasts peaks, páramos, valleys and impressive national parks. This region stretches from the capital, Bogota — with its skyscrapers, museums, cuisine, and rich culture offerings — to the north, where visitors can stop by marvelous colonial towns and be transported to an age of legends such as El Dorado.
5. THE COLOMBIAN MASSIF ANCESTRAL ORIGINS: The mysterious páramos, mountains, and volcanoes are the cradle of Colombia’s Andean culture and the country’s largest rivers. The strong mark of ancient civilizations can be seen in the region’s archaeological parks and amongst its indigenous communities, which keep their ancestral knowledge alive. This destination invites you to explore the eternal as well as the White City of Popayan.
6. THE COLOMBIAN AMAZON-ORINOCO SACRED RAINFORESTS AND PLAINS: The green heart of Colombia is an immense megadiverse region full of ancient forests, vast skies, and thundering whitewater rapids. The north is home to a wild landscape of virgin plains, as well as biodiverse herds and estuaries, an area rich in rural culture. Unexplored rainforests in the southern part hide a universe of natural marvels, petroglyphs, indigenous ancestral knowledge, and living cultures, which we must continue to preserve.
To conclude, the traveler who visits Colombia will find in our country transformative, unique, authentic and even spiritual experiences in the same territory.
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.
Our country has great potential for travelers from all over the world to come and enjoy experiences and treatments that help provide them with the mental, physical, and spiritual balance to compensate for the effects that the pandemic has brought.
For example, there are Colombian companies such as Wellness Trip Colombia, dedicated to offering tourist experiences focused on wellness tourism, which respond to the demand of travelers seeking to discover authentic, natural, peaceful places, as well as experiences with the local communities.
In the country it is also possible to find activities such as retreats, yoga, hydrotherapy, ancestral rituals, holistic techniques, walks, breathing workshops, detoxification programs, even meditation with whales as Wellness Trip Colombia offers, among many others.
The regions of Colombia that stand out for this type of tourism are the Coffee Cultural Landscape, and the departments of Cundinamarca, Boyacá and Chocó, which have numerous hot springs and great natural wealth.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Offer good international air capacity. Today Colombia has a reference air connectivity for the entire region, since it has recovered 93.9% of the seats and 90.8% of the international frequencies that were registered in February 2020, before the pandemic.
As of January 2022, 27 airlines in operation connect 10 destinations in Colombia with 25 countries in the world and 42 international cities, reaching over 1,000 weekly frequencies to Colombia and 178,000 weekly seats.
And in 2021, Colombia registered 35 new international routes, a number that exceeds that registered in 2019, when 17 new air connections came into operation. So far in 2022, 6 airlines have announced the entry into operation of 13 new international air routes, of which two have already been inaugurated in the last week of January.
2. The natural wealth. Colombia is the most biodiverse country per square meter in the world. We are the world leader in terms of bird species and butterflies. Third in plants and reptiles; and fourth in mammals. Highlighting our diversity makes us an attractive destination for nature lovers from all over the world.
3. Sustainability. With the natural wealth that Colombia has, we are committed to protect the environment and the local communities involved in the tourist chain. As a matter of fact, our country became in 2020 a founding member of The Future of Tourism Coalition, joining organizations like Green Destinations, Tourism Cares, and The Travel Foundation to prioritize the needs of destinations and their communities in the post-pandemic travel era.
4. Biosecurity and vaccination. We are focused on regaining the international traveler’s trust in their ability to safely visit and travel within Colombia. The Colombian Government created the Tourism Biosecurity Certification, endorsed by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC); we were officially the first country in Latin America with this type of certification.
On the other hand, in Colombia over 72 million doses of vaccines against covid-19 have been applied. Of this number, more than 25,9 million correspond to second doses and 5 million to booster doses.
5. The warmth and kindness. Our country has a Brand Manifesto that reflects the warmth and kindness of the Colombian people, which is why we created the narrative: ‘Colombia, the most welcoming place on Earth.’
At a time when a warm welcome, a kind embrace and a feeling of true community has never been so important, we feel that our bold, yet simple message encapsulates what global travelers are seeking. To clarify, we did conduct extensive quantitative and qualitative research with more than 1,500 surveys and focus groups with Colombians and foreigners to identify what the core essence of Colombia is and ultimately, the warmth and kindness of our people lay at the heart of it. When people say you can judge a place by its people, I couldn’t agree more and this is precisely why Colombia has chosen to build its new manifesto narrative around the warmth and kindness of ours, for which we are known for.
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I strongly believe in the power that we all have of being extraordinary. If we all have self-confidence, we will be able to achieve our goals and fulfill our life´s ultimate purpose. Like I previously mentioned, a while ago I found out that my life´s purpose is to serve the others by connecting people and make an impact on their lives. I have a special ability for doing networking. This has allowed me to connect the right people for making a business successful; for getting a job; and even for getting married.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Taking into account that, as I said, I believe in the power of connection, if I started a movement, it would be called ‘The Power of Joining Efforts’.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!