During the four-day event, experts in cruise marketing and shore excursions conducted seminars and held business meetings to enable members of the Association to be more competitive while maximizing profitability, to focus on marketing and to know their brand by targeting their audience and selecting itineraries according to guest preferences. Also among topics of discussion were safety and tourist development, which included a commitment by cruise lines to provide travel agents with knowledge and support and government and private sector cooperation with cruise lines. Caribbean and Latin American booths on the convention floor supplied information about their uniqueness and the attractive shore packages they’re able to offer cruise lines.
On the first afternoon of the conference, His Excellency Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia, arrived at the convention auditorium and shook hands with front-row guests - Association members, dignitaries and some press (including JAX FAX), after which he and association leaders took the stage.
With the national anthem and presentations concluded, the president rose to the podium and thanked the members of the association and Proexport Colombia for their professionalism and dedication to the industry. In his passionate speech he mentioned that it was a “true honor,” to welcome visitors to the magical Colombia, adding, “your hearts beat faster when you get back to the ship, loaded with memories.” Cartagena “is one of the most popular ports for foreign visitors,” he said, “one of the biggest jewels in the Caribbean.” The increase of ships to the city has brought about a better quality of life and an increase of five percent to the GNP of Colombia.
The president’s projected plans are to strengthen alliances with cruise lines, to make continuous improvements to the infrastructure and to design tour packages so that Cartagena will become a destination to be visited many times over and over again.
President Santos concluded his speech by repeating a quote Admiral Edward Vernon said to Lawrence Washington (George Washington’s brother), both of whom were instrumental in the expansion of Cartagena Bay in the 18th century. “We welcome you with open arms,” he said, “and with open smiles.”
Conducting conferences throughout the convention were prominent members of the FCCA: President Michele Page, Gerald R. Cahill (President and CEO, Carnival Cruise Lines), Richard Fain (Chairman and CEO, Royal Caribbean Cruises), Adam Goldstein (President and CEO, Royal Caribbean International), Kevin Scheehan (President and CEO, Norwegian Cruise Line), Richard Sasso (President and CEO, MSC Cruises USA), Joanne Salzedo, Director of Product Development and Jennifer Marmanillo, Itinerary Planning at Norwegian Cruise Line, and Christopher Allen, AVP of Global Deployment and Itinerary Planning at Royal Caribbean International. Amilcar Cascais V.P., Tour Operations at Carnival Cruise Line was also FCCA Shore Excursion Committee Chairman.
Prior to the conference, Proexport Colombia organized excursions for journalists to experience the Archipelago of San Andrés and Providencia, Barranquilla, Santa Marta and Cartagena. Consensus was that whether on the mainland or the islands, the areas we visited were safe. Many Colombians speak Spanish only and will help in whatever way they can. They’re likely the friendliest people on the planet.
Visitors to San Andrés must purchase a tourist card (about U.S. $28) either from a national airline or upon entry at the customs and immigration counters (due to previous border disputes with Nicaragua).
The principal activities in San Andrés are snorkeling, scuba diving (Providencia is the third largest barrier reef in the world) and shopping (San Andrés is a free port). Our group visited Johnny Caye, a popular beach spot for locals and tourists alike and Hans Reef, an island to kick back, have a fish or chicken lunch and snorkel. Like some Latin American countries, there is a charge (1,000 pesos - 50 cents) for the use of toilets and changing rooms. The Malecon (promenade) of San Andrés is home to shops, food stands and hotels facing the stunning, palm-tree lined stretch beach.
Our group flew to the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Baranquilla and were transported by van to Santa Marta where we visited the Quinta de San Pedro, the remarkable botanical gardens and manor home of Simon Bolivar, “The Liberator” of Gran Colombia from Spanish rule, who died there in 1830. Among artifacts and household items is his chapel and marble life-like effigy.
A trail through the jungle at Tayrona National Park leads trekkers to a variety of plant, bird and animal species. Commonly seen are titi monkeys, eagles and lizards. Along the coast of this extraordinary 46-mile sanctuary are sandy beaches, where the Caribbean Sea offers a welcome respite from the heat and high humidity. There are several restaurants, campsites and luxury accommodations (the Arrecifes and Cariaveral sections) in the park run by the indigenous Tayrona. At the end of the day, Rocoto, a small Peruvian Restaurant in town served us excellent cerviche, fish and beef accompanied by delicious full-bodied wines.
Before leaving Santa Marta, we stopped to pay homage to soccer great, Carlos Valderrama (El Pibé) and, upon arriving back in Barranquilla, the singer, songwriter, model and star, Shakira. We stopped there to visit the Museo del Caribe, a stunningly modern building of floors devoted to the history of Colombia and a special room housing images and typewriters of Gabriel Garcia Márques (Gabo), the renowned novelist, screenwriter, journalist and 1982 Nobel Prize winner in literature.
It’s understandable why Cartagena de Indias is a popular port. We arrived before the conference ceremony in time to walk around this scenic, historic city and, since the convention building is close by, to the walled Old Town (a UNESCO site).
Our first stop was the Castillo San Felipe De Barajas, a 16th century fort built high on the hill of San Lázaro, where the view of the city is breathtaking. We also viewed public art -- several contemporary works by Silvia Vari, a statue of a large woman by Fernando Botero and the gigantic pair of old shoes, a monument to Cartagena poet, Luis Carlos Lopez. Sadly, the Museum of Modern Art would be reserved for another trip.
Still, strolling inside the 16th century Old Town is well worthwhile. Here, colonial homes on narrow, cobbled streets lead to squares, courtyards and restaurants, where visitors can relax and enjoy a coffee or ice cream. Farther on, the Inquisition Museum is a brutal reminder of the torture inflicted on those “unbelievers” by the Spanish during the late colonial period. But the museum’s upper floors display Colombian pottery and historical objects.
Our departure was as the President said - loaded with the memories of having experienced a spectacular country.